This week, Donald Trump announced the US administration’s current 60-day ban for immigration work visas will be extended until December 2020. These measures will include the immensely popular H-1B visas, of which the US ordinarily has a cap per year, reserved largely for foreign labour. Competition is fierce for these visas; last year, there were 225,000 applications for the only 85,000 spots available.
The move comes in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak and subsequent economic fallout, with the Trump administration saying that halting these guest-worker programs will open up job prospects for out-of-work US citizens.
“Under ordinary circumstances, properly administered temporary worker programs can provide benefits to the economy. But under the extraordinary circumstances of the economic contraction resulting from the COVID-19 outbreak, certain non-immigrant visa programs authorize such employment to pose an unusual threat to the employment of American workers,” the administration said on announcing the order.
This is the latest in a series of immigration reforms the Trump administration has endeavoured to undertake, even before COVID-19 sparked widespread disruption and job losses across the globe. Back in 2017, when Trump first turned his attention to overhauling the H-1B system, we at People Matters explored the advent of AI and automation, and even highlighted some of the potential opportunities these changes could bring about.
Those questions are all the more relevant now. The restriction of H-1B visas is a blow to many workers; it will arguably decrease innovation and create disruption for many people’s plans. However, the time is also right to ask: how much should we really depend on such work visas? In an increasingly virtual world, to what extent do employees need to be onsite, particularly during the ongoing global pandemic when travel is restricted and business is largely contactless? How can we leverage technology to decrease our dependence on bureaucratic authorisation, particularly when they are so vulnerable to disruption?
The COVID-19 crisis has spurred the widespread adoption and acceptance of virtual work. For many professionals, this has been a help not a hindrance.
In a report published Monday entitled ‘A New World of Remote Work,’ Citibank looked at almost 500 occupations and found around 113 of them could be performed remotely. Commenting on the findings, Carl Benedikt Frey, Oxford Martin Citi Fellow, and Director of the Future of Work Programme at the Oxford Martin School, said “The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that remote work is possible [...] those 113 occupations employ 52% of the U.S. workforce.”
According to recent NASSCOM data, 95% of India’s 4.36MN-person strong IT industry has pivoted to remote work under COVID-19. Crucially, their productivity levels have either stayed the same, or increased. Big-hitters such as Tata Consultancy Services, Infosys, Wipro and Tech Mahindra have also expressed certainty that their employees will continue on a remote or virtual workflow post-COVID. Speaking to Business Insider, C Vijayakumar, CEO of HCL Technologies said that employee productivity has gone up by “16-17%.”
Under lockdowns, workers in most fields - many of whom had never worked remotely before - have had to adapt to this arrangement. Despite a few hiccups, a sense of their own increased or consistent productivity is high among employees too. A recent study by the Best Practice Institute revealed that 76% of workers believe they’re personally more productive, while 72% felt the entire team's productivity was improved.
Similarly, international travel and business trips have all but halted. Across the global, workers have adapted, working across continents and timezones through telecommunications and remote work meetings to keep their companies going. Face-to-face meetings are, for many, no longer necessary. There are, of course, exceptions, but in certain sectors - IT, consulting and financial services - it can be argued that remote work not only functions well, but better than onsite arrangements.
The question then becomes: why relocate and apply for a work visa at all?
Cost-cutting and local hires
Despite the increase in productivity spurred by remote work, we cannot ignore the upcoming economic problems COVID-19 has created. Even in 2017, we highlighted the potential money-saving measure of companies choosing to make local hires rather than employers spending thousands of dollars to sponsor work visas and lawyer fees.
The latest news will no doubt spur an even more urgent drive to make local hires among multinationals with US worksites. Bringing about its own set of issues, this will arguably reduce expenditure and make sense in an environment where many companies are tightening their belts, cutting jobs, reducing hours and implementing freezing hires.
Automation and AI
Also in 2017, we began to talk about the potential of automation, writing that organisations would “need to clearly look at the speed and focus of their automation efforts and determine how much to invest, where and when.”
In three short years, this landscape has changed immeasurably with advances in Cloud technology, AI solutions and robotics. Now, the outbreak has hastened the arrival and adoption of AI and automation, with everyone from banks to e-commerce to local governments investing in these technologies - not for the sake of efficiency or curiosity, but out of pure necessity.
According to a Gartner survey released on Monday, 75% of organisations will shift to operationalizing artificial intelligence (AI) by 2024, representing a 5x increase in streaming data and analytics infrastructures in this time frame.
On the heels of the crisis, large changes are afoot. While Trump attempts to address unemployment through immigration reform and visa freezes, others will look to leverage technology, embrace virtual working and the boosts to productivity that remote work can create.
In many ways, the H1-B visa changes may not prove to be as impactful as expected or, indeed, as they were intended to be.