Refinery strikes spread after foreign worker row

Avoiding protectionism will be easier said than done, judging by the escalating row at a Lincolnshire refinery...

Last Updated: 23 Oct 2013

Strikes are breaking out across the country today in sympathy with workers at a refinery plant in Lincolnshire, who walked out in protest after a lucrative new contract was given to an Italian firm. Although refinery owner Total insists that there’ll be no ‘direct redundancies’, staff are angry that more than 300 Italian workers have been shipped in to do the work. Delegates at Davos can preach as much as they like about the importance of free trade and internationalism – but UK workers whose jobs are under threat are understandably unlikely to see the logic of this position…

The trouble started because Total (which is French, just to complicate matters further) awarded a £200m contract to build a new unit at the Lindsey plant to Italian firm IREM, which has its own team of specialists. Not surprisingly, the UK workforce saw the arrival of these 300 workers as a big two-fingered salute (quite literally, in the case of one less-than-diplomatic Italian pictured on the BBC website) and stormed out en masse in protest on Wednesday. They’ve been quick to remind Prime Minister Gordon Brown that back in 2007 he was banging on about ‘British jobs for British workers’, as part of a crackdown on migrant workers. Looks like this facile (and possibly illegal) bit of tub-thumping populism may be coming back to haunt him...

Because it’s clear that this is turning into more than a localised industrial dispute. Wildcat sympathy strikes are breaking out up and down the country – thousands of workers across the manufacturing sector, from Grangemouth and Peterhead in Scotland, to Redcar and Wilton in the North-East, to Aberthaw in South Wales, have now walked out in support. This isn’t the first time a project has been subcontracted to foreign workers, and clearly the Lindsey refinery workers' plight has struck a chord. ‘It’s a kettle ready to boil and the lid has blown off now,’ one protester told the BBC.  (The fact that there aren't many jobs for Italians in Italy at the moment is unlikely to appease anyone - particularly since Italy is not exactly renowned for its welcoming attiude to economic migrants, like those from the Balkan states for example).

Over in Davos, delegates have been waxing lyrical about avoiding the protectionist mistakes of the past; retreating within one’s own borders is no recipe for economic recovery, economists argue. However, at a time when the job market is shrinking, to many workers globalisation will look more like a threat to their pay packets than an obvious boon. And although the unions are insisting that there’s no xenophobic or racist element to these protests, the far-right has already been trumpeting this a great day for British nationalism. It all adds up to a very dangerous situation for the powers-that-be...

In today's bulletin:
Refinery strikes spread after foreign worker row
Honda shuts Swindon as Japan's woes get scary for UK
Davos Day Two: More talk, more action
Ford goes into a bigger spin
Solving big problems, with YouTube

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