July 28, 2020
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The Reich Rebuffed

Racism, peculiar laws and Silicon Valley prompt Indian geeks to spurn bodyshoppers from Bonn

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The Reich Rebuffed

They are calling it the war of Gastarbeiters (guest workers). But beyond the gloss and the hype, it's nothing but a simple clash of egos between the world's third richest nation, Germany, and one of the poorest, India. And thanks to its own shortsightedness, the former is on an extremely soft turf.

Three months ago, when Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder announced amid much fanfare the hiring of foreign IT professionals to help develop the industry and fill 75,000 vacancies in the west European nation, Germans were not prepared for a near-total rejection by the "poverty-stricken" Indians.

What went wrong? Are Indian geeks cool to German industry after their exposure to - and the lure of - Silicon Valley, where they are decidedly, collectively, king? Are they waiting for the US to raise H1B visa limits? It's all that and more. Sources say the immediate dampener is the rigid visa terms offered through the Federal Employment Agency (fea), which monitors all foreign professionals. The initial offer was to issue 10,000 three-year visas, ban on job change and work permit for accompanying spouse. It was then changed to five years (the Green Card system) and work permit for spouses after two years' stay.

Adding to the tension is the racist "Kinder, Statt Inder" (Children, not Indians) movement in Germany, led by Opposition Christian Democratic Union (cdu) leader Jurgen Ruttgers, which garnered much sympathy among 32,000 jobless German IT professionals. Taking the cue, another section of the Opposition demanded that Indians called for work be not granted social security, health insurance and other benefits. As a result, the Indians switched off.

"You should also understand that a German Green Card isn't equivalent to what an Indian professional will get in the US or even the Australian Permanent Resident's Permit. We don't have immigration laws, we don't allow immigration," says first secretary (information) Carsten Holscher at the German embassy in New Delhi. "One need not read too much into those isolated racist attacks and what the Opposition parties are saying," he adds.

Holscher's own explanation is based on history. Foreigners, he says, are about 10 per cent of Germany's 82 million citizens and Indians form a very small fraction. Also, a difficult language, different food habits and a perennially cold climate have combined to prompt Indians to pick the more hospitable Britain and the US over Germany. "Added to this is our troubled past... so any racist attack or a remark is taken with extreme seriousness," says Holscher.

As a result, the fea, until last week, has received a mere 1,800 applications for IT jobs in Germany from not just India but a host of countries taken together - Ecuador, Bulgaria, Hungary and Russia. Besides, sources say, the actual movement will start only by end-August after Bonn ratifies a new law allowing foreigners to pick up assignments in the IT industry. The German embassy here receives around 110 enquiries from professionals a day, far lower than what embassies of other developed countries do.

Schroeder's press office says it's too early to assess the situation. "By July (after the Green Card amendment), the picture will be clear," says spokesman Wolfgang Gerz. But foreign minister Joschika Fischer's visits to sap Labs and Wipro in Bangalore and the administration in New Delhi to woo techies with the Green Card initiative seem to have made little difference. A spokesman for the central employment office in Germany said the number of inquiries is 3,100. But, says Focus magazine, only 384 are Indians.

Says Kusum Aradhya, 27, a software developer at sap Labs, who is not keen to accept the German offer: "He (Fischer) met 10 of us for 20 minutes and wanted to know our views on the Green Card initiative. Our concerns were: low social acceptance, language and food. We also wanted to know if Indians going there for jobs will get an opportunity to take up higher education in German universities. I feel it's very difficult to work in Germany until their attitude changes."

Her colleague Sijesh Manohar, senior software developer, has made up his mind. "I'd prefer to migrate to the US because the companies there are way ahead of others in technology and there is no language barrier. Fischer said Germany couldn't offer a better package than the US because of its economy but offered to bridge the gap on social acceptance, IT infrastructure and language barrier. He told us that this is the beginning and things will improve but didn't mention the companies that are keen to hire us."

Sanjiv Mittal, ceo, Bharti BT and former VP of ibm's PC division, agrees. "The attraction a software person has is not for a country alone but for the companies, the only exception being the US. Tomorrow, if Italy makes an offer, I'd like to examine a lot of issues like learning and growth potentials and my position after I complete a two-year assignment there. If a company comes forward looking for 500 people, there will be a good response but if a minister comes here for a finite number of software engineers, it's a job mela and the best may not be available. I think Germany needs to do a bit of image-building and also give us the names of companies."

Clearly, the tables have turned and how! Indians account for a third of the world's software professionals but, as Petra Perner, director of Institute of Computer Vision and Applied Computer Sciences in Leipzig, admits: "They are more likely to go to the US." The German infotech industry accounts for more than 1.7 million jobs and has the potential to grow manifold. But, says the Cologne-based Institute of Business Research, the nation will not be able to handle the growing demand with its own people. Says Uwe Holl, chairman of Germany Asia Pacific Society: "We are an ageing nation. In 30 years, more than 50 per cent of the German population will be over 65 years. We need younger people. We need at least 500,000 people every year to keep everything going. But our society, law and politics do not allow that."

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