Aijaz Rahi, File, Associated Press
MUMBAI, India — Low cost efficiency put India's outsourcing companies at the heart of global business and created a multibillion dollar industry that for years has skated over criticism it was eliminating white collar jobs in rich nations. Now, the industry's long-held fears of a backlash are being realized in its crucial U.S. market.
Provisions in an overhaul of U.S. immigration law will close loopholes that allow outsourcing companies, Indian and American, to pay guest workers in the U.S. at rates often below wages for equivalently skilled Americans. The proposed changes are in line with President Barack Obama's vows to make it tougher for U.S. companies to replace American workers with cheaper labor abroad, either by opening factories overseas or subcontracting their work to outsourcing companies.
The cost to the Indian companies, which do everything from running call centers to managing the massive amounts of transactional data generated by banks, could run to several hundred million dollars in lost profits.
India's $108 billion outsourcing industry has shrugged off bad publicity in the U.S. and other countries since it began blossoming more than a decade ago. It has plenty of supporters among global corporations who prized outsourcing's ability to lower their costs and boost profits. But with the world economy stagnating, and U.S. unemployment at stubbornly high levels since the recession, a day of reckoning appears to be looming.
At issue in the U.S. are high-skill worker visas called H-1B that have been dubbed the "outsourcing visa" by critics who say the system allows companies to bring in cheaper tech workers from abroad instead of hiring Americans.
The immigration bill, the larger point of which is to boost border security and provide a path to citizenship for 11 million people living illegally in the U.S., would impose steep fees for companies such as Indian outsourcers that have more than half their U.S. staff on the permits and also require them to pay higher salaries.
The Indian government and the country's outsourcing industry are gearing up for a fight during debate on the bill, which could take weeks or months due to its other contentious issues. The draft law is now in hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
India's ambassador to the United States, Nirupama Rao, argued in USA Today that everyone benefits from a generous guest worker policy, with Indian tech firms also creating 50,000 jobs for American workers and consumers benefiting from cheaper technology.
Yet criticism in India that the proposed changes are protectionist and discriminatory is not eliciting sympathy in the U.S.
"This has to do with a business model that exploits U.S. immigration loopholes for competitive advantage," said Ron Hira, an associate professor of public policy at Rochester Institute of Technology who studies outsourcing. "It has nothing to do with the location of the headquarters of the company."
The rapid rise of India's information technology outsourcing industry has been a success story in a country better known for its stifling bureaucracy and biting poverty. In under a decade, outsourcing companies had created more than 2 million jobs and in 2012 contributed 6.4 percent of India's GDP, according to the National Association of Software and Services Companies, based in New Delhi.
That success has reflected the ability of India's companies to develop cheap software using Indian designers at home, where wages are far lower than in the U.S. But that makes it necessary, the industry says, to bring the Indian designers and experts "on site" to the U.S. where they are putting the systems into place.