The new Joe Biden regime promises to offer more work visas to skilled Indians but India’s software companies might not make a beeline for them
Last month, US president-elect Joe Biden released a policy document titled ‘The Biden Plan for Securing Our Values as a Nation of Immigrants’. It promised to “undo" the “damage" caused by outgoing president Donald Trump on immigration issues. The document said the new administration will offer more medium-term work visas to highly-skilled workers and remove country-wise limits on them.
For Indian IT companies, which depend on such visas to work at client locations in the US, this reversal of stance spelt good news. In the four years of the Trump administration, they have endured a less accepting visa regime. They adapted by sending fewer Indian employees to the US and hiring more Americans. They have worked towards a position that staves off uncertainty over visa rules. Even with a more liberal US visa regime, they are unlikely to abandon that position, for reasons related to visas, and more.
North America (predominantly the US) is the biggest market for Indian IT companies. Among India's top three IT services companies, it accounts for about half the revenues of TCS, and about 60% of revenues of Infosys and Wipro. When the US tightens its visa rules, it hurts their profit margins. In a report last month, credit rating agency ICRA said if the restrictions proposed by Trump were implemented in full, it could reduce operating margins of Indian IT companies by 2.6-5.8 percentage points.
In March 2017, Trump suspended fast-tracking H-1B visas—one of the two temporary US work permits used by Indian IT companies, the other being L1. A month later, he ordered a review of the entire visa programme. The percentage of initial denials of H1-B and L1 visas to Indian companies has spiked during the Trump years.
This June, Trump suspended fresh H-1B visas till the end of the year, but a US court overturned it. Last month, he proposed tighter restrictions on companies hiring H1-B workers and higher H-1B wages.
Indian IT has a history of wrestling with US visa-related issues. That’s because even as the industry grew, the number of visas offered by the US either stayed constant or fell. In 2001, when the entire Indian IT services sector employed fewer people than what TCS employs today, the annual H-1B visa cap for foreign professionals was 195,000. This limit hasn’t been raised since then.
In 2004, the US lowered the H-1B cap to 65,000, which was exhausted in 10 months. As the Indian IT industry grew, the quota filled faster: 6 months in 2005 to just 5 days in 2009. In 2019, the H-1B cap was 65,000 and the filling time was 5 days, with 71% of visas going to Indians.
As rejection rates surged under Trump, Indian IT companies realised they had to alter their strategy. Their options included lobbying harder in the US, reducing visa dependence, and tweaking the offshore-onsite work ratio. They reduced their visa dependence. Between 2014-15 and 2018-19, all leading Indian IT companies saw a decline in their H-1B counts.
They also hired more Americans. Wipro, for example, saw its H-1B holders decline at a compounded annual rate of 23% in the four-year period to 2018-19, the highest fall among leading Indian IT companies. Further, in 2019-20, 70% of Wipro’s staff in the US were Americans—the highest among its peers.
According to Crisil, a rating agency, Indian IT companies have to pay 25-30% more to Americans than to Indian workers on H-1B visas. Indian IT companies can partly offset such higher costs with higher ‘onsite’ billing rates (work done in the US). But what boosts margins is a revenue mix that is skewed towards ‘offshore’ billings (work done in India).
For Infosys, the margin leader in the Indian IT sector, offshore revenues are around 72%. Wipro’s is about 50%.
Traditionally, it has not been easy to tweak this ratio because customers insist on an onsite component. However, the pandemic has normalised work from home across the world. This change in mindset could help Indian IT companies increase their offshore component.
Meanwhile, there are other factors at play. The biggest users of H-1B visas are US companies looking for specific skill sets.
The biggest pushback to Trump’s proposal to increase H-1B wages came not from Indian IT, but from US startups. There is a growing concern in the US that businesses might move north to Canada, which is emerging as a technology hub, with growing support from its government.
These are likely considerations for Biden as he seeks to overturn some of Trump’s immigration policies. It's also a reason why Indian IT companies are unlikely to reduce their visa dependence to zero or eliminate onsite work. But they are likely to push themselves in that direction enough to de-risk from US visa rules.
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