BT's £100m deal to outsource desktop support to an offshore services company has prompted calls for the government to monitor work permit rules more carefully.
The bulk of HCL Technologies's work under the five-year global IT outsourcing contract will be carried out at a Contact Centre in Noida in Northern Indian.
It is estimated that 1,000 staff will be employed in the dedicated centre by the end of this year.
As part of the deal, which was sealed last month, it is understood that 30 Indian IT professionals have been granted UK work permits, despite IT not being on the list of skills the government considers to be in short supply.
This has lead to calls from some for closer monitoring of how work permits are issued.
Dominic Grieve, the Conservative spokesman on home affairs, has written to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Patricia Hewitt, demanding that the criteria for work permits be closely monitored to stop companies hiring skilled workers on cheap salaries and bringing them into the UK.
"The government is being cagey about what's going on with work permits. It seems as if the system is being used in a way for which it was never intended," said Grieve.
"The question is whether there are abuses or whether the government changed the rules without telling us. The implications for the IT industry in this country could be very serious."
The Home Office removed all IT skills from its official list of occupations with a shortfall of skilled workers in September, and a spokesman told vnunet.com that there were no plans to reinstate them in the near future.
"We seek to ensure that work permit arrangements respond to market conditions. But just because IT isn't on the skills shortage list doesn't mean you can't recruit people from overseas. Each case is looked at on an individual basis," he said.
Workpermits UK, the government agency responsible for administering permits, recently mailed 100,000 small businesses to raise its profile and highlight the potential benefits of recruiting people from overseas.
In a note on its website the agency states: "We aim to strike the right balance between enabling employers to recruit or transfer skilled people from abroad and protecting job opportunities for resident workers."
BT was cautious about discussing the contract, but stressed that it had no involvement in HCL's actions over workers.
A spokesman for the telco said: "HCL has a contract with us to provide a level of service. We don't monitor or prescribe how many people they bring over to the UK and it's up to HCL that they conform to visa requirements."
BT denied claims that UK employees of Mahindra BT, the company's joint venture with Mahindra and Mahindra, were being paid a quarter of the rate of UK counterparts.
"The total package of the Indian sub-contractors working on BT projects is comparable to those of their UK counterparts and well above UK national wage. They do not lose out," the company said in a statement.
"Our approach is good for BT's British workers, as it means they can work on leading edge developments; good for Mahindra's Indian employees, who get excellent experience and the chance to work abroad; good for BT's customers, who get the benefits from outsourcing; and good for BT's shareholders, for whom this approach demonstrates a well-managed company."
Phil Codling, an analyst with Ovum Holway, said: "Work permit regulations have already been made tougher when IT skills were taken off the skills shortage list.
"Offshore companies have realised that bringing people over is going to be more difficult. Overall, jobs are migrating offshore. It's difficult to find a positive in this for the UK."
And Bob Greenway, resources manager at Maindec, the UK company that previously provided desktop support services to BT, claimed that unreasonable use of the work permits system meant that UK IT companies were facing unfair competition.
"I'd like the UK government to implement the rules that exist already," he said. "This is bad news for the UK's IT industry, and it's wasting the skills that 12 months ago the government was screaming blue murder for.
"The reality is that 50 per cent of contractors in the UK are out of work. In the long run the industry will suffer."
vnunet.com contacted HCL on several occasions in both India and the UK, but the company failed to provide a spokesperson for comment.
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