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India challenges US visa price hike at World Trade Organisation

Legal bickering over temporary workers could be cover for wider trade unpleasantness

India has complained to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) about the United States' decision to increase visa application fees.

The USA last year doubled the fee required to apply for an H1-B visa, a class of temporary visa for skilled workers. Fees rose to US4,000 per application.

Indian technology companies have complained long and loud about the cost of H1-B visas, arguing that they need to bring workers from India to the USA to grow their businesses. US businesses retort that Indian companies could hire locals with comparable skills, but prefer to import people who they pay lower wages.

That argument's become an election issue in the USA, with all sorts of temporary visas criticised as depriving US citizens of jobs.

Access to H1-B visas is a political issue in India, too, so much so that when the US raised prices Barack Obama scored a testy phone call from Indian prime minister Narendra Modi.

India's now formally complained to the WTO, which sets the clock ticking on a 60-day mediation process. If nothing can be resolved, the WTO can rule on the dispute.

The complaint comes after the US successfully used the WTO to challenge India's subsidy of solar power equipment. That dispute can easily be interpreted as a strike in the direction of Modi's signature “Make In India” initiative promoting local high-tech manufacturing. Make In India aims to see India reduce its dependence on imports by manufacturing more electronics for domestic consumption.

Modi also has half an eye on winning business from China as the Middle Kingdom's wages rise to levels that big factory operators don't enjoy, a fact that's been noted by the likes of Make In India participant Foxconn. ®

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