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Rising trade walls and shrinking standards

LiveMint logoLiveMint 02-05-2017 Rajrishi Singhal

Indian professionals are finding doors across the world shutting, shrinking opportunities to ply their trade. Weaned on a diet of free markets and globalization, they are finding that promise now ringing hollow. Country after country, especially free trade evangelists, are erecting walls to stop the flow of professionals and human capital.

US President Donald Trump carried out his campaign promise on 18 April by signing an executive order overhauling the H-1B visa regime, a programme allowing foreign professionals to work in the US for six years. Indian infotech companies such as Infosys, Wipro and Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) are among the biggest beneficiaries of this programme.

In less than 24 hours, Australia followed suit by revamping the immigration law which allows entry of professionals, titled “Subclass 457 visa”. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s abrupt about-turn was unexpected. He was in India less than a week earlier, waxing eloquent about India-Australia ties and dispensing homilies about trade between the nations. He even signed off on a joint declaration with Prime Minister Narendra Modi which, among other things, welcomed “…progress in the flourishing knowledge partnership…building on the strong links in higher education, skills development and science, technology and innovation”. The icing was a memorandum of understanding signed with TCS for opening a new innovation lab in Australia, the fate of which could now be uncertain.

What could have happened in less than a week to force such a transformation? Could it be a follow-up to the now-infamous Trump-Turnbull telephone call? Turnbull’s measure, ostensibly designed to undermine rising nationalist right-wing forces at home, has now jeopardized progress on the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (Ceca) being negotiated between India and Australia. A Ceca is wider in scope than a free-trade agreement—apart from trade in goods and services, a comprehensive treaty also includes issues like investment, government procurement and competition policy.

Three other prosperous nations have erected barriers of varying degrees—New Zealand, Singapore and the UK. New Zealand’s new work visa rules came a day after neighbour Australia’s. The UK has been tightening its visa rules for some time now. UK Prime Minister Theresa May recently further tightened visa rules for professionals by mandating minimum salary thresholds and language requirements.

India has a Ceca with Singapore which provides for trade in services between the two nations; to avoid breaching the agreement, Singapore has not denied work permits outright but has kept them in extended limbo.

This pandemic of border and behind-the-border barriers to services trade has compelled even World Trade Organization (WTO) director general Roberto Azevêdo to undergird his 2017 cheery trade prognosis with a caveat: “At the domestic level, policies are needed to help support the workers of today and train the workers of tomorrow. Closing the borders to trade would only worsen the situation—it would not bring the jobs back, it would make more jobs disappear.” WTO estimates world trade in 2017 will grow between 1.8-3.6%, but might settle at around 2.4% if world gross domestic product (GDP) growth sticks to projections. WTO also recognizes existence of multiple downside risks, including the sort of knee-jerk protectionist measures implemented by the US and Australia.

There could be a charitable explanation for why these countries are banding together against professional Indian talent. Australia, New Zealand and Singapore may have responded reflexively to the US and UK’s restrictive immigration laws; apprehensive of a spillover from these countries, the three countries might have responded impulsively and hastily.

The more plausible justification is that these moves—particularly by Australia and the US—are perhaps designed to blunt India’s attempts to introduce trade facilitation in services (TFS) agreement, somewhat identical to the trade facilitation agreement (TFA) in goods which came into force in February. According to India’s concept note—introduced in the WTO on 27 September 2016—like the TFA is intended to “…expedite the movement, release and clearance of goods as well as cooperation on customs compliance issues…”, the TFS can result in “…reduction of transaction costs associated with unnecessary regulatory and administrative burden on trade in services”.

India followed up the concept note with an “element paper” (goo.gl/wf9m7d) in November 2016 and a draft legal text in February 2017. The TFS is also now pitted directly against TiSA, or Trade in Services Agreement, currently being negotiated outside the WTO by 23 members comprising mostly developed countries. It is aiming for an ambitious overhaul of the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), which it hopes will attract more members and eventually be ratified in the WTO. Both India and China (as well as many other emerging nations) are not members. It is, therefore, safe to expect that trade politics and diplomacy will probably focus a lot on services trade in the immediate future, especially at the WTO’s December ministerial in Buenos Aires.

Coincidentally, TiSA was initiated by the US and Australia. Which brings the discussion full circle: Is Australia’s long-term destiny to remain cat’s paw of the US? Its desire to also be identified as an Asia-Pacific community member will call for some tough balancing act then.

Rajrishi Singhal is a consultant and former editor of a leading business newspaper. His Twitter handle is @rajrishisinghal.

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