Indian Computer Pros See Threat in US Bills

IN India's ''Silicon Valley,'' computer company executives use the term ''protectionism'' to describe the efforts of some American legislators to limit or exclude foreign computer professionals from employment in the United States.

Sen. Alan Simpson (R) of Wyoming is circulating a draft proposal of a bill that would force US companies to pay a large fee in order to get visas to hire foreign professionals. Such a law would lead companies to hire more Americans, according to a Simpson aide.

N.R. Narayana Murthy, chairman of the Indian software company Infosys Ltd., says foreigners aren't stealing American jobs, estimating that only 2,500 Indian computer professionals work in the US in an industry with 2 million to 3 million employees. ''We are not taking your jobs,'' he says. ''We're helping your productivity.''

But US Labor Secretary Robert Reich says, ''Hiring foreign over domestic workers should be the rare exception, not the rule.''

In testimony to a Senate Judiciary subcommittee last week, he added: ''Such exceptions should be even rarer, and more tightly targeted on gaps in the domestic labor market than is generally the case under current policy.''

Mr. Murthy and other Indian businesspeople argue that the Simpson plan constitutes a form of protectionism, because it eliminates a level playing field in hiring workers. ''If the US starts xenophobic activities based on the fear of the unknown,'' says Murthy, ''the US will suffer.''

US efforts to curb immigration of skilled professionals is part of a wider effort to change US immigration law. Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas has introduced a bill in the House that would cut overall legal immigration from 800,000 per year to about 660,000, according to spokesman Alan Kay.

The Smith bill, now being considered by the Judiciary Committee, would also penalize American companies if they lay off American workers and hire foreigners as replacements.

''America should get the best and brightest to come here and work,'' Mr. Kay says, ''but not at the expense of American workers.''

The Smith bill does not include Senator Simpson's proposal, which would apply to all foreign professionals and skilled workers seeking work visas. Under that plan, US companies that claim they can't find qualified American workers and want to hire foreigners would pay 30 percent of the foreign worker's first year's wage into a special retraining fund. They would then have to pay the foreigner a salary amounting to 110 percent of the prevailing industry wage.

''The American people don't want their kids just out of college to compete with people whose parents haven't been paying taxes in this country,'' says Dick Day, aide to Simpson and chief counsel for the Senate Subcommittee on Immigration.

But people in Bangalore ask why Indian professionals shouldn't compete with Americans. They argue that some American politicians seem to be promoting free trade everywhere in the world except at home.

''India has a large number of outstanding universities that produce graduates ready to do system or application software,'' says Yogendra Singh, vice president for software development at Tata Information Systems, a joint venture with IBM. Mr. Singh himself emigrated from India to the US in the 1970s and is now working in Bangalore.

Indians have a comparable skill level to Americans, says Singh, but their ''drive to succeed and competitive spirit'' is greater. That makes them highly desirable employees, he says.

James Schneider, owner of Professional Consulting Network, a San Francisco firm that finds jobs for computer professionals, counters that American software engineers are both highly qualified and motivated.

He says a level playing field doesn't really exist, because companies often don't pay the prevailing wage to foreigners on temporary work visas as required by law. Lax enforcement by US government agencies frequently allows companies to get away with paying less, he claims.

Mr. Schneider supports Simpson's plan and would like to see even tougher measures to limit hiring of foreign professionals. ''We've got the qualified people in hi-tech industry,'' he says. Hiring foreigners is just ''an excuse to pay less than prevailing wage.''

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