Are IT skills shortage schemes being abused?

Following on from our earlier story on the Australian IT industry, there are growing concerns that Western governments are seeking to undermine domestic IT workers, while placating big business at the same time. Given the increases in U.S H1-B visa allocations and the introduction of the Fast Track Visa system in the UK to solve 'skills shortages', are such schemes being abused?

The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade report, issued late last year, said significant opportunties existed for Australian firms to enhance their competitiveness through "direct investment in and outsourcing to the Indian IT sector".

It has now emerged that the report was sponsored by a large multi-national, BHP-Bilton. Already slammed by IT workers, unions and now the New South Wales government, it seems that that the Australian government has sought to put big business first.

The Australian Services Union's Martin Foley stated: "What we need is a competitive edge for Australian call centres based around our people, our infrastructure and our education system. The last thing we need is our own government taking up the call to export jobs."

An article seen recently in the USA entitled: “Debunking the Myth of a Desperate Software Labor Shortage” was presented to the US House judiciary committee as evidence that big business was seeking to create a bogus 'skills shortage' in order to justify its use of cheap overseas labour.

Dr. Norman Matloff of the Department of Computer Science at the University of California, reported that the myth was created to enable big business to bring in H1-B visa workers from abroad. This significantly reduces the cost of the workforce and, as has been seen recently, in a slowdown these workers are the first to go.

And what about the UK? As we reported in late 2000, the former E-commerce minister, Patricia Hewitt, spent a week in India publicising the Fast Track Visa scheme. Since then, according to government statistics, over 16,000 Indian IT specialist were granted work permits.

In order to obtain a fast track visa in the UK, applicants must demonstate skills in shortage occupations. The government has identified shortages in areas such as C, C++, SQL Server, XML, Oracle and CRM, amongst others. It would be interesting to find out why these areas have been singled out, and what measures have been used to calculate the 'skills shortage' in the UK.

No-one can blame overseas workers from wanting to take advantage of these new opportunities, but there is growing concern throughout the industry that the government has been neglecting the needs of domestic IT workers in favour of big business. While the focus on IR35 turns to case law action, it could well be that the 'skills shortage' debate becomes a key issue for 2002.

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