Pravasi Migrant Workers Desperately Trying Not To Be Sent Home

Raman Swamy

They are a different breed of migrant workers.  They are the Pravasi Migrants -- the fortunate few with H-1B visas that entitle them to take up jobs in the United States, much to the envy of fellow Indians back home.

But right now the coronavirus outbreak sweeping through America is casting a shadow of uncertainty among the H-1B visa holders. 

This is because of the 60-day rule which makes it mandatory for H-1B visa workers to leave the United States within 60 days after they lose their jobs.  Now many of them are being laid off virtually overnight and the threat of having to return home looms large.

Prior to the pandemic, the 60-day rule was never really a problem - partly because fired H-1B workers could almost always get new jobs in Indian-run outsourcing companies.  Not anymore.  Not until coronavirus goes away and the badly battered US economy shows signs of recovery.    

H-1B workers, most of whom are from India, are desperate to avoid going home after being laid off.  They are lobbying as hard as they can to persuade the US government to relax the 60-day rule so that they can stay on in the United States until jobs are available again – which could take three, four, six months or more, who knows.

The prospects at present are dismal.  The job losses are affecting not just individuals but also are turning out to be a survival crisis for many Indian-run contractors and subcontractors that charge huge commissions from the H-1B contracts signed by Fortune 500 companies.

Petitions are being sent to government departments in Washington and even to the White House.   The tone is plaintive and the wording is similar - “Please consider temporarily extending the 60-Day grace period to 180 days.  Please protect the H1B workers during these difficult times”.  One such plea has been signed by 20,000 migrant workers and contractors. 

So far, the Trump Administration’s Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has turned a deaf ear to the appeal and has shown no inclination to waive the 60-day rule.

The real worry for the pravasi job-seekers is that the H-1B visa is a political hot potato - an ideological tussle between the Republicans and the Democrats.   When the 2.2 trillion-dollar Coronavirus Recovery Bill was being negotiated by both the political parties, there was indeed an attempt by the Democrats to quietly slip in a clause to temporarily re-issue all work permits held by visa workers in the United States.  But Republican Senators torpedoed the proposal.

The Democrats are being goaded to favour migrant workers by giant tech companies which benefit from skilled IT workers from countries like India who accept comparatively lower wages.  The Republicans on the other hand are driven by the ‘America First’ agenda which views highly skilled migrant workers as a threat to the employment opportunities of ‘sons of the soil’.

If the Department of Homeland Security strictly enforces the 60-day rule, a large number of H-1Bs visa holders who are currently jobless will have to go back to the home countries.  Once they leave en masse, that would help American graduates find jobs whenever the economy bounces back later this year or the next. 

Whatever the logic of the lobbies representing American-born graduates -  right now America is hurtling towards deep economic recession.  The H-1B workers not only know they could be unemployed real soon, if they are not already but they are acutely aware that they are not needed at this time – nor will they be for quite a long while. So why should the government allow them to stay for six months or more trying to look for jobs when so many unemployed Americans are hurting and searching for jobs as well?

In terms of numbers,  the estimates are that there are up to 1.5 million white-collar foreign contract workers in the United States – this includes roughly one million Indians of whom 90 percent are H-1B visa workers.

From the Indian temporary migrant workers’ side fingers are being kept crossed that the current head of Department of Homeland Security, Chad Wolf, was once a lobbyist for the NASSCOM and understands the outsourcing industry and the value of H-1B gig workers.  

But the argument from the other side is that Indian and U.S. companies use the H-1B program to extract salaries and wealth from the American college graduates and they split the gains among both countries’ executives and investors, plus the visa workers, their managers, and India’s government.

One reality is that in general, many U.S. executives prefer not to take the trouble of interviewing, hiring, and managing American graduates.  Instead, they outsource critical hiring decisions to the many Indian-run staffing companies who import Indian H-1Bs.

The staffing companies range in size from tens of thousands of employees down to firms with just a few part-time employees. These companies, which are called “body shops” by Indians, do all the work of recruiting, hiring, and firing blocs of H-1B workers, each of whom is a gig worker with bare minimum legal rights.

This outsourcing system is approved by Wall Street investors who believe that a constant inflow of temporary H-1B workers is much cheaper than a group of experienced American graduates.  This outsourcing process has created a fortune for Indian companies by allowing them to take large commissions from the imported Indian workers.

Normally, much would have depended on which of the lobbies exerts the most pressure.  But under the shadow of the coronavirus any prediction would be pointless.  When the entire ship of the global economy is sinking, nobody has time to pay heed to the plaintive cries of a few drowning migrant contract workers from a land far away.

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Apr 2, 2020

Raman Swamy

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