Lindsey refinery workers near job offers victory

Uchenna Izundu
OGJ International Editor

LONDON, Feb. 5 -- Workers participating in an unofficial strike at Total UK Ltd.'s Lindsey refinery in England have been told there will be 102 jobs made available for British workers if they end their protest about the employment of foreign workers.

Union representatives will present the offer for staff to vote on Feb. 5 and if accepted will end the week-long dispute that gained sympathy walkouts at refineries and electric power stations all over the country.

This is a revised proposal after workers rejected a deal where only 60 jobs out of the 200 available would have been created for British employees. Total, the unions, and Acas, the employment mediation service, have been in talks for 3 days to resolve the issue that has been discussed in parliament and that triggered debates on xenophobia and antiprotectionism.

The British workers complained about discrimination after Total contracted Italian firm Irem SPA to build a diesel hydrodesulfurization unit (OGJ Online, Jan. 30, 2009). Total insisted that it has not and will not discriminate against British companies and workers.

Irem was using Italian and Portuguese employees and had provided a floating hotel as accommodation for them. According to the deal, none of them will lose their jobs.

Derek Simpson, joint secretary for Unite union, said: "The problem is not workers from other European countries working in the UK, nor is it about foreign contractors winning contracts in the UK. The problem is that employers are excluding UK workers from even applying for work on these contracts."

The issue of contracting foreign workers for major projects in the UK has led the Construction and Engineering Association to recommend that companies first always consider whether there are competent local workers. According to the guidelines published Feb. 4, if there are, non-UK contractors should consider any applications.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown described them as "the common sense way of dealing in practical terms with the difficulties we face."

The controversy's political dimension is acute because the UK will require at least 60% of its power stations to be replaced, according to Unite's estimates. It is keen to see that British employees have a sizeable amount of work.

There also been have different responses from the ruling Labor party. John Mann, a Labor Member of Parliament, congratulated unions for "exposing this exploitation and the absence of equal opportunities to apply for all jobs." He called for primarily British labor to build new power stations. In contrast, Peter Mandelson, the business secretary, has warned that stopping foreign competition from participating in local industries would turn the recession into depression.

Brown's phrase 'British jobs for British workers,' which was used in 2007, has been a rallying cry for the strikers as fears about job losses intensify during the recession. During the Prime Minister's Question Time in parliament, Brown defended the remark despite accusations by David Cameron, leader of the Conservative party, of a grave error of judgment and pandering to protectionist fears.

Contact Uchenna Izundu at uchennai@pennwell.com.

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