A wave of protests is taking place around the country over workers from EU countries taking skilled jobs at a Lincolnshire oil refinery. At the time of writing these ‘wildcat’ protests were confined to other UK energy plants.
The workers at the Lincolnshire plant were brought in to help construct a low-sulphur diesel plant and – much to their delight I’m sure – are living in barges moored off Grimsby. The company that won the contract to supply the labour is Italian and they have brought in about 400 workers from Italy and Portugal to fulfil it. Therefore, it may well be that they are not employed by the refinery and are on fixed-term contracts.
Of course, what’s upset local skilled workers is that unemployment is rising and they could be next in the firing line as employers seek to cut labour and other costs. And, with the slump deepening, there’s every likelihood that will happen.
Yet, as long as the imported labour comprises bona fide EU nationals it’s difficult to see what the protesters and the unions who back them can hope to achieve. It would be illegal for the government to say that tenders for labour are open only to UK-domiciled employers or that EU-nationals cannot work here.
However, the protesters and unions may have a point of leverage in discovering how much the imported workers are being paid. Even if it is at or close to minimum wage levels, they will argue it is below local pay rates for particular skilled workers. Not illegal, of course, but a strong point nonetheless.
Additionally, neither Gordon Brown nor the Labour Party will want to alienate trade union opinion with an election looming, so may well be susceptible to pressure.
It will take the wisdom of Solomon to deal with such rows and, as the economic outlook worsens, there will be more to come.