Oil Refinery Strikes : Union Leaders Warn Against Far-Right Hijacking Protests

Oil refinery strikes: Union leaders warn against far right hijacking protests

Union leaders have condemned attempts by the far right to hijack the 'British jobs for British workers' protests for their own anti-immigrant agenda.

By Patrick Sawer
Last Updated: 1:04PM GMT 01 Feb 2009

The TUC has expressed its sympathy for workers taking strike action in support of colleagues at Total's Lindsey Oil refinery in Immingham over the decision to award a 200 million construction contract to a firm employing Italian and Portuguese workers.

But its general secretary Brendan Barber has now spoken out against attempts to stir-up racist hatred against foreign workers on the back of the dispute.

There is some evidence that activists from the BNP and other far-right factions have attempted to influence the Lindsey strikers and other groups of workers taking solidarity action around the country.

Mr Barber said: “Unions are clear that the anger should be directed at employers, not the Italian workers. No doubt some of the more distasteful elements in our towns and cities will try to use the fears of workers to stir up hatred and xenophobia.

“But I am confident that union members will direct their anger at the employers who have caused this dispute with their apparent attempt to undercut the wages, conditions and union representation of existing staff.”

Unions representing the 1,000 strikers at the Lindsey refinery claim that their members were not given the opportunity of applying for jobs on the IREM contract, in what they say is a breach of EU law.

The wave of industrial unrest is set to spread further next week when nuclear power workers are expected to join more than 3,000 oil and gas workers who yesterday walked out in support of the Lindsey strikers.

As demonstrations spread from Lincolnshire to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, many of the protesters targeted their anger on Prime Minister Gordon Brown over his pledge to deliver “British jobs for British workers.”

The wildcat action began on Wednesday when hundreds of workers gathered at Total's Lindsey oil refinery in Lincolnshire to protest against the company's decision to award the 200m construction contract to IREM, which is set to employ up to 400 Italian and Portuguese workers to build a hydro desulphurisation unit at the site.

The contract is one of several major construction jobs in the energy industry to go to a foreign contractor, but with UK unemployment rising fast, unions say workers are increasingly angry about what they feel are unfair practices by employers.

As well as Lindsey, trade unions and companies reported that workers at least 12 other sites including refineries, power plants, gas terminals and chemical plants staged demonstrations on Friday.

More than 1,500 workers staged unofficial walkouts at six sites in Scotland in support of the dispute. There were also demonstrations at the Wilton refinery on Teesside, the Milford Haven natural gas terminal, Pembrokeshire, and the South Wales Kilroot Power station in County Antrim.

More workers could walk out next week in sympathy, including hundreds of contractors at Sellafield, the country's biggest nuclear power plant.

A BNFL, which owns the Cumbrian nuclear plant, confirmed that 900 contractors at Sellafield plan to meet before work on Monday to discuss taking industrial action in support of Lindsey workers.

The firms said it was confident a walkout “would have no impact on safety, security or production.”

Unite, the country's biggest union, on Friday called for workers from across the UK to converge on Westminster in a “national protest” to put pressure on Mr Brown over labour laws.

It also said it was consulting lawyers over claims disputed by the firms that contractors may have acted unlawfully by failing to allow UK workers to compete for jobs on UK projects.

Derek Simpson, Unite's joint leader, said: “The union is doing everything in its power to ensure that employers end this immoral, potentially illegal and politically dangerous practice of excluding UK workers from some construction projects.”

Since becoming Prime Minister in 2007, Mr Brown has several times used his “British jobs for British workers” slogan.

Critics point out that European Union laws allowing EU nationals to work freely in Britain make the phrase meaningless and some Labour MPs have accused Mr Brown of pandering to xenophobia.

Godfrey Bloom, UK Independence Party MEP whose Yorkshire and the Humber constituency covers the Lindsey plant, said Mr Brown's words are now coming back to haunt him

He said: “It defies belief that, with unemployment pushing to the three million mark, we are bringing in foreign workers to do a job that many British firms could tackle.”

On Friday, Downing Street insisted that Mr Brown stood by his pledge.

Asked if the Prime Minister regretted his famous pledge of “British jobs for British workers,” a No 10 spokesman said that recent changes in the work permit rules would indeed mean British workers would get access to many vacancies.

He added: “I don't see a reason for regret.”

In an effort to be seen to acting over the protests, No 10 announced that the Government is to hold talks with major construction firms and industry groups, “to make sure they are doing all they can to support the UK economy.”

However, Mr Brown's spokesman was unable to say who would represent the Government at the talks or what it was that the industry might do to change the situation.

No 10 also stopped short of asking workers not to protest.

“This is for workers to resolve with employers,” said the spokesman.