This is the time of the year when American companies join the mad rush to get H1-B visas for their foreign skilled workers. The gates will be shut within a few days. The spotlight during these manic days is usually on the demand for Indian gnomes to man workstations across the US — and more so in an election year when US presidential candidates are likely to rail against the evils of outsourcing.
Meanwhile, two other types of Indian expatriate workers are in the news. A group of Indians have marched 1,500km to Washington, DC, alleging that they were duped by labour contractors and then mistreated at a shipyard in Mississippi state. These men hold H2-B visas. They have asked Ronen Sen, Indian ambassador to the US, to help them out.
Indian labourers in West Asia have also taken to the streets. Some five million Indians work in these oil-rich states for wages that are far higher than what they could command back home. But these countries have been hit by high inflation, thanks partly to the fact that their currencies are pegged to the declining dollar.
Indian expatriates send back $27 billion of remittances each year, a record. So, there is both an economic and a social reason why the Indian government will have an interest in all three cases. But the nuances in these cases should not be ignored.
The H1-B visa quota is a bargaining issue, with important US technology companies such as Microsoft lobbying for higher quotas for foreign technology workers. The case of the workers at the Mississippi shipyard is a clear example of human rights abuse.
The tricky one is what is happening in West Asia. The root cause of labour unrest there is inflation. Wages have lagged prices. The Indian government has demanded a minimum wage for workers from India. The West Asian countries are not amused. We would not like similar advice either from a foreign country, and our stand on labour standards during global trade talks is a case in point.
The government should intervene in cases of human rights abuses, but be more careful where domestic labour market issues are concerned.
How should the Indian government respond to issues facing Indian workers abroad? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org