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Indian IT workers feel pull of home

Cash-vs.-career crunch decision vexes 'knowledge workers' in Japan

by Pankaj Arora

My wife was finally beginning to show signs of despair.

“We’ve got to get a bigger refrigerator — and a bigger apartment,” she said recently.

The flat seems to be shrinking daily as our daughter grows up.

“But honey, you know the costs involved. Instead, let’s de-clutter and make some space,” was my sage advice to her.

“After de-cluttering, I’ll need a microwave, a juicer, a vacuum cleaner, a dining table and an independent room for our daughter in the new house,” she demanded.

“Darling, you’ve managed this house so well until now. My contract ends in another few months and—”

“Only to be extended again for an indefinite period, for all we know,” she shot back, getting obviously frustrated.

Things seemed so much easier when we arrived here from India. Thinking we were here for the short term, we scrimped and saved, doing the rounds at ¥100 shops and accumulating mounds of inexpensive stuff to be disposed of when the project I was working on was over.

Three years and several contracts later, our living expenses are at an all-time high and planning for the long term is impossible when in terms of work we don’t know if we even have the option of a future here.

My colleagues and I — “knowledge workers” deployed on foreign assignments through our parent firm in India — seem to be stuck between a rock and a hard place. And there are hundreds of other Indian expats here in the same boat.

The knowledge worker — a term coined by Peter Drucker — is an exploiter and assimilator of information and knowledge. In India, this means a young breed of specialist professional, typically in the mid-20s to early 30s, considered an expert in his field with about four to six years of experience. Pay for the top guys in Japan, though quite modest by overseas standards, is enough to provide them with a comfortable middle-class lifestyle in India.

The numbers of these workers from India are going up every year, scattered across the industry spectrum from software firms to the automotive sector. There are about 70 Indian IT firms in Japan, and as trade relations between the two countries have improved, Japan is to India now in terms of a brain drain what the U.S. was in the 80s. However, whereas well over 2 million Indians live in the U.S., the Indian population in Japan numbers in the thousands. By the end of 2006, some 17,000 Indians were registered with the Immigration Bureau — more than four times the number of Indian residents recorded 10 years ago.

There are many in India who are ready to come here and work for ever-lower salaries, as fresh graduates are constantly being churned out from hundreds of tech schools in India. Aside from the money, quality of life issues such as the relative safety and pollution-free environment are strong incentives for those who choose to work in Japan.

As these Indian companies dispatch their employees on foreign client projects, for most of the knowledge workers it’s an opportunity to get out of the rut and mediocrity. After completing six months abroad, an employee gets Non-Resident Indian (NRI) status, a tag well respected — even adored — back in India.

Getting a three- or four-year period of work experience in Japan on the resume is a big plus, as is learning about the Japanese business culture and the way of life.

On the flip side, with the steady devaluation of the yen and specialist technical skills becoming more commonplace, the picture is frankly not as rosy as it used to be. Though Indian IT workers here can squirrel away a respectable amount in the NRI account (specifically set up by non-residents to save money abroad to send back home), the saving potential now doesn’t make it worth the toil, many knowledge workers here are finding.

Rahul Chandra, a 34-year-old professional who has been working with the same client company for the past four years, lives with his wife and 5-year-old daughter in the Kanto area. Since coming to Japan, the Chandras have managed to save enough for a mortgage on a house in India.

“I’d like to stay here, ” says Chandra. “I can repay the entire loan for my house in another few years.” But “on this salary,” he says, considering the family are planning to have another child, “the heat is just too much.”

Although agreements vary from company to company, the fine print in some contracts strips Indian workers of any raise in Japan. After all, the employers’ logic goes, the remuneration is much more than one would get back in India — an undeniable fact when the currency conversion is done.

But despite this, says Chandra, “Even if I may make more money than my counterparts in India, I am still at the user level and will remain so as long as I am here. My peers in India have moved to managerial level.”

An attractive option for foreign knowledge workers is to make the switch to a Japan-based company, although this is usually only an option if you are fluent in the local language. Besides the better compensation, there’s only one company to be committed to and no middlemen to cut into your share. For employees of Indian IT companies, on the other hand, often more than two or three companies are involved in the employment process. The loop starts with the parent company in India with which the engineer is actually employed. Second is the liaison company, and third the client company where the engineer is finally deployed.

“It’s like courting three girlfriends simultaneously, so the commitment factor to any one considerably diminishes,” says Amit Roy, a 29-year-old IT worker based in Tokyo who recently made a switch to a Japan-based company just before getting married. “Now I am married to one company and one wife and my priorities look clear,” he laughs.

Knowledge workers here long term can run the risk of becoming redundant if they don’t keep up with emerging technologies. Also, in India there are ample opportunities to move up the career ladder and develop other abilities — people skills and management skills, for example — as a part of working with a team. There’s also the option of taking part-time courses and degrees for those who want to advance in a particular field.

When deployed on foreign assignments, however, especially in a non-English-speaking country, workers can find themselves isolated and stuck at the bottom of the ladder, restricted to a particular area without any ongoing training.

“After three years in Japan, the penetration of the software that I’m working on here has drastically reduced, and back in India they have moved onto other platforms, making me feel obsolete,” complains Ajay Sharma, who works for a big Indian tech firm at the client site in Japan. “Too much experience is not quite an advantage here. We’re but a tiny blip in the huge radar screen,” he says.

The pull of home is strong. The initial months of a foreign assignment are a breeze, but the excitement of a new country doesn’t last forever. Most of the knowledge workers’ families coming here seem to have put their life on hold. Used to living in big houses with bigger families, driving cars to work and taking regular vacations in India, they suddenly find themselves in cramped apartments with a limited social network, getting about on public transport or at most a bike. The vacations in Japan simply pass by, as traveling anywhere for few days with a family dips into hard-earned savings. Career-oriented wives on dependent visas find themselves sitting at home as their visa status means they can’t work, or they take on odd jobs. The end effect of this auto-pilot lifestyle is the kind of despair my wife felt that day recently.

Every few years there are major life-changing decisions to be made, and ours is about a year and a half away, when our daughter starts school. The thought of returning to India — where the competition is fierce and the salaries are modest — gives me goose pimples. So one keeps playing it safe till it is time to make a leap — for new opportunities or a complete career overhaul.

As Will Rogers, the American humorist, said: “Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.”

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