Offshore work permits: Use or abuse?

The practice of outsourcing UK IT jobs to cheap foreign labour markets has always attracted controversy. And now, for those that find offshoring unpalatable, there is worse news: Not only are huge numbers of UK IT jobs going offshore, but now increasing numbers of foreign IT professionals are coming to the UK to work on-site.

According to the Association of Technology Staffing Companies the number of work permits granted to foreign IT workers has jumped 32% in the last 12 months; the vast majority (79%) coming from the home of offshoring, India.

For some, this is another blow to the UK’s IT profession. Those opposed to offshoring argue that the short-term focus on cost cutting fails to account for the long term impact on UK business: shorn of the entry-level jobs, future generations of the UK’s IT profession will not be able to climb on to the first rung of the career ladder, never mind reach the top.

Similarly, critics paint the filling of on-site jobs with staff sourced offshore as an abuse of the work permit scheme by unscrupulous employers, hiring in cheap labour at the expense of available home-grown talent.

For others it is simply a matter of economics: the use of overseas skills has significantly lowered the cost of IT services, helping the IT department to become more effective, and enabling to generate greater value for the business. The use of offshore providers may also frequently require that some of their staff spend on site.

The work permit scheme is specifically designed to help protect employers from skills shortages. Certainly, eSkills, the skills council for the IT sector, has pessimistically warned of a general decline in UK IT skills. However, the suspicions in some quarters remain: the permit scheme is being abused by opportunistic employers, undercutting pay rates for UK professionals and damaging the long-term future of the country’s IT profession.

The experts' response…

Peter Skyte, national officer for the IT industry at trade union Amicus, says using foreign workers should not be a substitute for training up home-grown IT talent.

We accept that where there’s a shortfall in a particular skill that can’t be met by UK resident workers or through training, then that expertise should be brought in from overseas. What we are finding [however] is that more and more of our Amicus workplace representatives are reporting increasing misuse, and in some cases what they regard as blatant abuse, of the work permit scheme for IT professionals, which is resulting in redundancies, lack of training and offshoring of work to the detriment of the UK resident workforce.

Mark Kobayashi-Hillary, offshoring director, National Outsourcing Association, says the negative view of offshore staff working on-site ignores long term benefits.

Academics have written for a long time about this idea of a network society, where there is a much freer flow of people who are prepared to move around to take advantage of employment opportunities, and where, in turn, work gravitates to where the required skills are located. We should move away from any idea that the only good thing for the UK is that we should only work with British people and companies. Businesses are free to source services from anywhere in the world and if that improves their economic performance that will be better for UK the economy.

Ian Cowley

Ian Cowley is the managing director of printer cartridge company By taking a systematic trial and improvement approach, Cowley and marketing director Sean Blanks have created a Sunday...

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