Microsoft plans to open software center in B.C.
By TODD BISHOP
P-I REPORTER

Last updated July 5, 2007

Microsoft Corp. added fuel to the debate over U.S. immigration reform Thursday with plans to open a large software development center across the border in the Vancouver, B.C., area.

The facility, at a yet-to-be-announced location, will provide space for 200 employees initially, with room to grow, the company said. Microsoft said it chose Vancouver based on such factors as the city's diverse population, its status as "a global gateway" and its proximity to Redmond.

However, in announcing the facility, Microsoft also said the Vancouver office will help the company "recruit and retain highly skilled people affected by immigration issues in the U.S."

That was a reference to limits on the number of foreign technology workers allowed into the U.S. -- and it came one week after the failure of a high-profile immigration bill that included provisions to relax those limits.

Microsoft has long called for lifting the federal cap on H-1B visas to help international recruiting efforts.

Technology workers and unions in the U.S. contend that Microsoft and other companies aren't taking full advantage of the domestic work force.

A Microsoft spokesman, Lou Gellos, cautioned Thursday that the worker visa issues aren't the main reason for opening the Vancouver office. He said the company would be opening the facility there regardless of the status of the immigration policy debate.

Still, people on both sides of the issue said news of Microsoft's plans will play a role in the debate, especially given the timing.

"They want to try to use this announcement to bolster their specious arguments about why they need to increase the H-1B visa cap," said Marcus Courtney, president of the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, a Seattle-based labor union.

But Robert Groban, chairman of the National Immigration Law Group at Epstein Becker and Green in New York, said Microsoft's situation exemplifies the problem companies face under current U.S. immigration law.
"We're talking about people that we need (in the U.S.), but we have this protectionist attitude surrounding our immigration laws that won't let us get them in here," Groban said.

H-1B visas let foreigners work in the U.S. for several years. The cap is 65,000 visas per year, and applications from companies far exceed that number.

The U.S. government doesn't make the H-1B statistics for individual companies public. In May, the trade publication InformationWeek reported that it obtained documents ranking Microsoft third in 2006 for the number of H-1B visas received by its workers, a total of 3,117.

Canada doesn't specify a limit on the number of skilled foreign workers allowed into the country under work permits, and its system makes it easier for foreign workers to gain status as permanent residents and possibly become citizens, said immigration lawyer David Cohen of Montreal-based Campbell Cohen.

"When people come to Canada on work permits, they see it as the first step in being Canadian," Cohen said. "At least in the recent history of the U.S., the worker under the H-1B category -- the Microsoft-type worker we're talking about -- really knows that it's temporary in nature."

Canada's rules on foreign worker permits are more relaxed in part because of a history of labor undersupply in the country. Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan said Canada's immigration policies help recruit companies to the area.

"I think the fact that we have a very responsive immigration system gives us a real advantage," said Sullivan, who was clearly pleased by Microsoft's news.

Microsoft's Gellos said the decision to open the Vancouver office doesn't signal any slowdown in the company's Seattle-area expansion. Microsoft is redeveloping large portions of its Redmond campus to accommodate more employees, and earlier this year it leased two Bellevue office complexes that are under development.

Tom Flavin, president and chief executive of the economic development organization enterpriseSeattle, said he wasn't specifically concerned about the implications of Microsoft's Vancouver announcement. However, he said the labor issues it raises need to be addressed.

"You never take anything for granted, and so we have to ensure that we are providing a business-friendly climate with the work force that Microsoft and others need to compete globally," Flavin said.

Microsoft has locations around the world, many of them for sales and marketing, but also software development centers in places such as India, Ireland, Denmark and Israel. The Vancouver plans are notable because they will give the company a large software development center less than three hours by car from Redmond.

The company expects to have capacity for about 200 people to start, with room to grow, Gellos said. Microsoft currently employs about 900 people in Canada, and that figure could double over the next few years.

The company hasn't yet determined what types of software development will take place in the Vancouver office. In addition to new hires, Gellos said, the office may include some people who want to relocate from Redmond, such as Canadians interested in returning to the country.

AT A GLANCE
Microsoft employs about 76,500 people worldwide. Here's how that breaks down geographically:
•  Washington state: 35,053, primarily in Redmond
•  Rest of U.S.: 11,638
•  Canada: About 900, but expected to grow with opening of new office.
•  Rest of world: About 28,900

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