Refinery owner Total had apparently offered to make some of the jobs at the centre of the recent row available to British workers, in the hope of putting an end to the dispute over the use of foreign contractors at the Lindsey site. However, despite negotiations with the GMB and Unite unions, Total has failed to come up with an offer that’s acceptable to the strikers – who are still angry that the majority of the workforce is being shipped in from Italy and Portugal. With the dispute sparking sympathetic wildcat strikes across the country, the government will have been desperately hoping for a speedy resolution – but no such luck.
To add to the confusion, it’s not entirely clear what Total’s offer was. The GMB seemed to suggest that more than half of the 200 jobs available could end up going to British workers, but according to the BBC, the workforce were told that it was just 60 jobs – 40 skilled, and 20 unskilled. The protesters felt this was far too low, and so rejected the offer. Apparently they’re also sceptical that these foreign workers are being paid on the same terms as their British counterparts – Total bosses insist they are, but the strikers clearly don’t believe them. So it looks like the negotiations could be back to square one.
That means more headaches from the Government, for whom this is turning into a highly embarrassing episode (although after Gordon Brown’s fatuous ‘British jobs for British workers’ soundbite, he’s only got himself to blame). Business Secretary Lord Mandelson has already been forced to defend its position, warning about the dangers of protectionism and suggesting the protesters should stop focusing on the ‘politics of xenophobia’. Not surprisingly, this has gone down like a lead balloon with the unions: the GMB has accused Mandelson of being in denial about the discrimination against UK workers (as caused by the EU Posted Workers Directive). Even MP Jon Cruddas, a Labour backbencher, criticised his choice of language.
Meanwhile the CBI waded into the debate yesterday on the side of Total, arguing there was no evidence of discrimination against the UK workers and suggesting this was part of a long-running union campaign. What’s more, the employer body said yesterday, the downturn was bound to lead to a big fall in migrant workers – agency staff would get laid off, others will go back to their home countries, and the inflow of skilled workers will decline. So it's even more important not to pass anti-foreign worker laws – particularly since it might jeopardise the livelihoods of the 1.5m Brits who work elsewhere in the EU (reasonable enough - although it's still a bit risky for the CBI to get involved in such an emotive issue).
Clearly this is an issue that will run and run in 2009...
[Update: it looks as though this latest bit of bad PR forced both sides back to the negotiating table - the BBC is now reporting that a deal has been reached, which will probably involve something like the 100 jobs the GMB thought it had wangled earlier...]
In today's bulletin:
Collapse doesn't Baugur well for House of Fraser et al
Refinery workers reject compromise deal
Office closed? Snow problem...
Country Life boosted by Rotten luck
Pontin's is hi-de-hiring