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UK.gov probes foreign IT workers

After allegations the industry imports cheap labour

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The Home Office has said it will review the way it awards work permits to foreign IT bods following an accusation that Work Permits UK was bending the rules to let outsourcing firms import foreign workers on the cheap.

Union Amicus said last month it had a Home Office survey that showed one in six foreign IT workers were employed below the market rate. Their employers, and Work Permits UK, which approved their applications, were therefore breaking immigration rules that prevent IT firms from importing cheap labour.

A Home Office spokeswoman told The Register this week that the figures Amicus used to back its case, which had been taken from an unpublished Home Office report, were not reliable. It was scoping out a more thorough survey to get to the bottom of the matter, she said.

Amicus, through its position on the ITCE Sector Advisory Panel for Work Permits UK, has been fine-tuning the approval system along with other representatives from unions, industry, and various government offices.

Its presentation of the unofficial figures to Joan Ryan, parliamentary under secretary of the Home Office, last autumn came as a surprise to its colleagues on the panel.

The last published panel minutes, from a meeting last May, revealed that the issue of wage rates and work permit applications sponsored by IT outsourcers was still being worked out. Amicus was not present at the meeting.

The unpublished minutes of the panel's October meeting, a copy of which has been obtained by The Register, show how they were still struggling to assess the quality of the approval system while Amicus was separately taking the matter up with ministers.

Work Permits UK said at the meeting that it "would never agree to a lower salary being paid to an overseas worker than that which was paid to a resident worker".

Baromoter salaries below which work permits are supposed to be awarded are under constant revision by the panel. In October, members still hadn't agreed the base salary levels from which Work Permits UK was supposed to work. Work Permits UK urged them to find a consensus.

Amicus' assertions that the system wasn't working did appear to be technically correct, despite the Home Office's attempts to rubbish its claims.

The Home Office spokeswoman said this week that the figures Amicus had used in its complaint had been taken from a "limited sampling exercise".

"The report that Amicus quoted is limited," she said. "It's disappointing that Amicus have released this because the numbers are not robust."

The work permits system could not be used to import cheap labour to the UK, she said. The salaries of all workers given a permit "meets the going rate".

Yet Amicus national officer Peter Skyte said the Home Office has previously endorsed the same figures.

There had been a sample size of 150 cases, he said, and quoted from the report: "While this represents a small sample of IT work permits approved, past Work Permits UK exercises have demonstrated that samples of this size provide a sound indication of how Work Permit applications are being considered."

Skyte added: "We welcome a larger exercise, provided it was done speedily and not just as a means of deflecting attention."

The Home Office said it was still doing the scope and remit of the larger survey.

But this whole episode looks like it might just be a storm in a tea cup.

Amicus said there had been a "huge increase" in the number of IT work permits approved. There were 33,756 awarded last year, up from 25,000 in 2005. Taking a median estimate of the number of IT professionals working in the UK, which is about 856,000, the temporary work permits issued to foreign workers last year represented just 3.9 per cent of the working population. Seventy-nine per cent of those were inter-company transfers related to outsourcing contracts for work that is being done overseas anyway.

If one in six of those work permits were approved at below the market rate, that means just 5,626 people, or 0.7 per cent of those working in the IT industry, will be getting their visas reviewed by Work Permits UK.

But neither Amicus nor the Home Office have said how much less than the market rate these people were getting paid. Was it £100 or £10,000? And had the salary levels set by the panel changed since the applications where awarded? The panel wasn't even sure in October how allowances were figured into the equation.

Though Amicus appears to be technically correct in its assertion that some foreign IT workers are being paid below the going rate, the shifting sands make its data look less certain. ®

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