UK IT experts fear for jobs

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The Independent Online

British IT consultants, hit hard by technology spending cutbacks over the past three years, are concerned that a probable deal at the upcoming World Trade Organisation meeting in Cancun could lead to further job losses.

The European Union has offered to welcome foreign providers of computer services, "including highly skilled, self-employed, com- puter experts".

It means IT experts from outside the EU will be given work permits for up to six months if they are hired for specific IT contracts. The contracts must run for at least 12 months. This is twice the existing concession, which only allows IT consultants to work for three months in the EU under temporary visas.

The Professional Contractors Group, representing IT professionals, is concerned the move will allow companies to bring in lower-paid workers from India, Russia or the Far East. It is writing to Patricia Hewitt, the Trade and Industry Secretary, and the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, to state IT contractors' concerns and to ask how the concession would be implemented. Ian Durrant of the PCG said: "When you give out work permits for six months it becomes attractive to ship over consultants. We are looking for assurances that there will be sufficient policing of this system to avoid abuses that will put UK contractors livelihoods under threat."

The Department of Trade and Industry said it would issue advice about the rules long before they started. That would not be until at least a year after the current, Doha round of trade talks was completed, which is not expected until the end of 2004. Word Permits UK, the Home Office agency, recently bowed to pressure from IT contractors and removed a raft of IT crafts from the list of skill shortages that allowed non-EU residents to get fast-track work permits. These skills were listed at the tech boom's peak in the late 1990s when it was difficult to fill IT posts.

The PCG estimates that despite this, around 40,000 non-EU workers are in the British IT industry, and the same number of British contractors out of work.