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The Professional Contractors Group (PCG) has urged IT contractors "not to panic" amid concerns that World Trade Organisation (WTO) negotiations to be held next month could result in the opening-up of the UK's employment market to cheaper overseas workers.

Calls for calm come as it emerged that one of the offers being put forward by the European Union at the WTO talks in Cancun, Mexico, is a relaxation of the rules concerning skilled workers from developing countries taking on jobs in Europe.

This offer of liberalising employment markets applies to a number of professional areas, including those in the legal sector, accountancy and architecture.

Also singled out is the IT sector - causing a wave of concern about the potential threat to jobs if adopted.

According to the EU's Summary of the Commission’s Proposal for the EU’s Services Offer: "In computer services, a sector that is key to the development of the Information Society in Europe, the Commission proposes to offer full market access to foreign service providers, including to high-skilled self-employed computer experts. This should enable Europe to benefit from the best computer services at the lowest cost, with a view to reach the goal set in the 'Lisbon strategy'."

The "Lisbon Strategy" - adopted in 2000 - is the EU's ten-year "commitment" to bring about economic, social and environmental renewal in the EU.

Explaining Europe's position, an EU spokesman told The Register that the offer on the table represented a "temporary entry of foreign nationals to provide services in the EU".

Part of that would enable overseas companies, with a contract to provide services to a client in the EU, to extend the length of stay for skilled personnel sent to the EU from three months to six.

The EU is also looking to create a "new sub-category of contractual service suppliers" that would allow overseas IT workers to enter the EU for up to six months.

On top of that, a service company with a graduate training programme would also be able to transfer its "managers of the future" for up to one year's work experience with an affiliated company in the EU.

In all cases, the EU makes it clear that existing rules governing working conditions, minimum wage requirements, and any collective wage agreements would continue to apply.

In addition, there is the chance that Member States could impose quotas to restrict the number of overseas workers taking up positions.

However, there are some in the industry that remain unconvinced by these apparent safeguards claiming that if adopted, these new rules would be a recipe for disaster.

Gerry McLaughlin, of IT reunion site NamesFacesPlaces.com has been raising concerns about this WTO offer ever since he found out about the potential threat to jobs and reported it on his Web site.

"If this offer is accepted as is, then that will mean devastation for the UK IT jobs industry, as UK workers cannot hope to compete with those from the developing countries," he said.

"IT jobs are to be traded at some global poker game for greater access to the markets of developing countries. The more access that the developing countries are prepared to give our major companies to their home markets, the more that they can have in terms of access to our IT jobs market for their companies and skilled workers," he added.

McLaughlin insisted that the new measures would be open to abuse and that overseas IT staff could be employed in the EU on open-ended rolling contracts.

This was echoed by the PCG, which has been busy trying to seek reassurances from Government that should this offer be adopted it won't lead to job losses in the UK.

"We will be writing to the Government to seek reassurances that UK jobs will not be under threat as a result of this proposal," he said.

But he admitted that without proper safeguards in place the offer being made by the EU could make it "wide open to abuse".

No one at the Department of Trade and Industry was available for comment.

A spokesman for the EU denied that the proposals would lead to "floodgates opening". ®

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