Upcoming service industry talks may see push for more foreign workers

By Doug Palmer ,Reuters

WASHINGTON — The United States will face pressure to open its borders to more foreign workers in the service industry in talks slated to start later this year, a difficult issue for U.S. trade negotiators over the past decade, business officials said on Friday. “It’s inevitable that that’s going to be on the table,” said Jake Colvin, vice president at the National Foreign Trade Council, which represents major U.S. exporters such as Boeing Co., Microsoft Corp. and Caterpillar Inc. Peter Allgeier, president of Coalition of Service Industries, whose members include Citigroup Inc, FedEx and Wal-Mart Stores Inc., agreed it would be a major demand on the United States in the talks, which are expected to start in coming months.

Professionals from around the world would like to work in the United States temporarily, Allgeier said. The proposed talks covering service sectors such as telecommunications, finance and express delivery are expected to include the United States, Japan, the European Union and a mix of 18 other developed and developing countries. The aim is to establish the rules for international services trade in the 21st century, including in new areas such as the Internet where countries are increasingly imposing barriers on cross-border data flows, Allgeier said. Although big emerging countries such as China, India and Brazil are not currently part of the proposed talks, participants hope they will eventually join. The United States is already is the world’s largest services exporters and could benefit significantly from the pact. Calls for the United States to provide more visas for skilled workers has been a sensitive issue in the past. Many U.S. lawmakers objected in 2003 when the administration of former President George W. Bush agreed in free trade pacts with Singapore and Chile to provide additional H-1B1 visas for their business professionals to work in the United States. That led to a letter by then-U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick promising the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee not to include such provisions in future trade pacts. The issue also hung over the unsuccessful Doha round of world trade talks. India became convinced the United States would not provide more visas and resisted demands to open its manufacturing and agriculture markets, Allgeier said.

However, the Obama administrations and senior lawmakers are promising action this year on a comprehensive immigration reform bill, which could include more visas for high-skilled workers. That potentially could free the United States’ hands to deal with visa demands in talks on the services pact. The United States also will likely face pressure in the negotiations to lower barriers in sectors such as shipping, telecommunications and air travel, Allgeier said.