With US hi-tech redundancies, thousands of Indians risk returning home
by Alessandra De Poli

The skilled workers who have been laid off have up to 60 days to find a company that will sponsor them to stay in the United States. However, recruitment is blocked. For historical and cultural reasons, India produces thousands of graduates in STEM subjects every year. But the guarantee of employment is no longer certain.

Milan (AsiaNews) - Last month, news broke that Meta (which owns Facebook, Instagram, and Whatsapp), Twitter, and Amazon would lay off tens of thousands of workers, and now thousands of Indians - engineers, computer scientists, and developers who had moved to the United States to work in big tech companies - are grappling with the consequences of that decision. 

Skilled workers residing in the US can do so thanks to a visa called the H-1B, which allows US companies to hire foreigners for up to six years in positions for which they have been unable to find US citizens. According to a Bloomberg analysis, US companies have sponsored at least 45,000 workers for H-1B visa applications in the past three years.

Meanwhile, permit holders can apply for permanent residency and purchase property, but if they lose their jobs, they have 60 days to find new employment. If they cannot find a new company to sponsor them to renew their visa, they must return to India and attempt to complete the paperwork from there. This can easily turn into an ordeal as waiting times for an appointment at US consulates in India have reached up to 800 days. 

The demand to move to the US among Indian professionals is very high, but only 850,000 H-1B visas are granted to them each year. Indians also tend to face long periods for obtaining US citizenship (the well-known green card) because each foreign nationality is granted a maximum of 7% green cards.

People of Indian origin make up 1% of the American population and 6% of the workers in California's Silicon Valley. Seventy per cent of H-1B visas go to Indians and in cities like Seattle, 40 per cent of foreign engineers come from India. 

The situation is the result of two long-standing trends: on the one hand, US immigration policy, which since the 1960s has allocated quotas based on skills and family reunification; on the other hand, Indian investment in education in what are called STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

The preponderance of Indians in science subjects is due to the decisions of the first premier of independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru, who during the Cold War tried to take advantage of investments from the United States or the Soviet Union to set up institutions that would train their citizens in subjects considered fundamental to the country's technological development, which - it was thought - could catch up with the world powers in a few years. This is how some of the country's best schools came into being, including the Indian Insitutes of Technology.

However, ironically, India's best engineers emigrate abroad attracted by much higher salaries, while according to a 2011 Wall Street Journal survey, only 75% of engineering graduates have the skills to hold a high-level position in the technology industry. This has led to the paradoxical situation whereby a degree in a STEM subject today often translates into one more unemployed Indian youth. 

This situation has been compounded by layoffs in the tech industry in India as well: Byju's, one of India's most popular online learning start-ups, has laid off around 2,500 employees this year. And it is just one of more than 40 start-ups that have joined Meta and Twitter in the layoffs.

"When hiring in the global technology sector started to decline in August, it was clear that the storm would hit India," explained a labour market official. 

However, according to Somdeep Deb, vice-president of labour consultancy Right Management, "Organizations need to be a little more patient. As an economy, India has survived many such cycles, including the 2008 global financial crisis, and more recently, the Covid-19 pandemic. We have fought those and we have moved ahead. Organizations can’t keep applying the brakes every six months or keep fighting market forces forever. What would be better for them would be to set their targets focused on sustainable growth. Job cuts have long-term implications, especially if they’re not thought through".