Protests against foreign energy workers spread

January 31, 2009

, IMMINGHAM, Jan 31 – Wildcat strikes against foreign workers spread through oil refineries and other energy facilities in Britain on Friday, fuelled by fears of rising job cuts.

The protest started at Britain\’s third-largest oil refinery, Lindsey in Lincolnshire, eastern England, where workers first walked out Wednesday over the use of Italian and Portuguese contractors on a 200-million-pound building project.

But it had spread by Friday to other refineries and plants across Britain, where unemployment is currently at its highest rate for 10 years as the credit crunch hits hard.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has made a point of pledging "British jobs for British workers," while more recently warning against trade protectionism as a response to the worldwide economic downturn.

EU law enshrines the right to the freedom of movement for workers between member countries.

However, local lawmaker Shona McIsaac, of Brown\’s governing Labour Party, said the decision to hire foreign contractors was "like a red rag to a bull for people in our community who are out of work."

Up to 1,000 workers demonstrated peacefully for several hours at Lindsey, run by French oil company Total. They cited Brown\’s pledge and held up placards saying "Right To Work UK Workers" amid a heavy police presence.

Bernard McAuley of the Unite trade union told protesters: "There is sufficient unemployed skilled labour wanting the right to work on that site and they are demanding the right to work on that site. We want fairness."

That protest has now ended but those involved vowed they would be back on Monday.

The BBC reported that 1,000 workers at the Milford Haven gas terminal in southwest Wales had gone on strike in sympathy Friday.

Hundreds also protested at six other sites including Grangemouth, Scotland\’s only oil refinery; a refinery in Wilton, northeast England, and Aberthaw power station in south Wales.

The dispute stems from Total\’s award of the contract to build a new desulphurisation unit at the Lindsey site to Italian company IREM.

Around 100 Italian and Portuguese workers, who live on barges in a nearby docks, work there currently and are set to be joined by 300 more next month.

Employment Minister Pat McFadden said he had asked Acas, the body which is intended to resolve employment disputes, to investigate quickly and report to the government, employers and the trade unions.

"I have asked Acas to establish an independent examination of the facts around these cases — allegations of hiring practices and so on," he said.

"It is a sensitive matter, tempers are running high. We must take an independent and dispassionate look at the facts."

Brown\’s official spokesman said the contract at Lindsey had been agreed some time ago when there was a shortage of skilled construction labour in Britain.

"That obviously is not now the case and we will be speaking to the industry in the next few days to ensure that they are doing all they can to support the UK economy," he added.

Unemployment in Britain has risen sharply in recent months, with thousands of job cuts at firms like steelmaker Corus. Two million people are jobless and the unemployment rate is 6.1 percent.

Brown\’s British jobs call was criticised by left-leaning think-tank the Institute for Public Policy Reform following the protests, saying EU law meant "jobs cannot be ring-fenced for UK-born workers."

Total said there would be "no direct redundancies" at the Lindsey refinery as a result of the contract being awarded to IREM and stressed the action had not affected operations there.

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