Unofficial strikes: protectionism won’t pay

The row about the use of foreign workers escalated this week when building workers at a new power station in Nottinghamshire downed tools in an unofficial strike.

Hundreds of workers staged a demonstration at the site of Staythorpe Power Station and at a site on the Isle of Grain in Kent to support protests about new plants that were being built by workers from Poland, Spain and Portugal.

Just as official figures showed the number of foreign workers in the UK increased by 175,000 to 2.4 million last year – while the number of British workers plummeted by 234,000 to 27 million – unions claimed hundreds more building jobs would go to non-UK workers.

Although contractor Alstom rejected claims of discrimination, angry British workers demanded a half-and-half deal like that agreed at the Lindsey Oil Refinery, where 102 of the 195 newly created jobs would go to UK workers.

Workers feel threatened

Phil Merrell, leadership and performance director at HR consultancy Penna told Personnel Today there would be a lot more spontaneous action where workers felt their terms and conditions or employment status would be undermined by foreign labour. “There is an increasing climate of protectionism in the way that the unions are viewing these kind of issues,” he said.

The advantages for companies and sub-contractors of bringing in foreign labour often centre around being able to undercut local pay and conditions. But others bring in staff from abroad to fill skills gaps in a particular industry. Engineering company Norland Managed Services, for example, has long relied on overseas labour to fill short-term needs and still suffers from a shortage of skilled electrical engineers.

Rachael Henderson, HR director at Norland, said: “HR really needs to do the PR exercise: showing sympathy for British workers but at the same time getting the message across to the workers that the best way to protect their jobs is by having the most skilled workers in the business, wherever they come from.”

Focus on communicating

According to Gareth Evans, former head of industrial relations at Royal Mail and now senior employee relations consultant at The Rialto Consultancy, clear communication is the key to avoiding disputes like the one at Lindsey. “If you don’t communicate at all you shift complete control to the unions and to people who are likely to use it to fit their own arguments,” he says. “If you lose control of that then you put the organisation at risk because you don’t know what would be used to fill that void.”

HR also needs to ensure it is fully up to date with legal regulations about employing foreign nationals as well as local workers. “The whole thing of ‘British jobs for British workers’ is ludicrous,” said Evans. “If you go right back to the Treaty of Rome [of 1958] when the European Union was created, the fundamentals are that anyone who is an EU citizen has the right to work in any EU country.”

Yet HR must be aware of the consequences of its actions, according to Merrell. “HR needs to be a bit savvy,” he said. “If you’re going to fish in wider labour pools, you need to be aware of the impact of that on existing conditions and the likely reaction of the unions. HR needs to play a role in advising management to not necessarily go straight for 100 Portuguese workers.”

Make EU workers feel welcome

A potential repercussion of the recent unofficial strikes could be that foreign workers – already affected by the current weakness of the pound against the Euro – may be less willing to come to the UK. “I’m starting to get a feel from some of the agencies that we work with that that pool of labour is shrinking,” says Henderson. “It will be the summer period when we’ll really see what impact this will have on us because at that time we rely very heavily on highly skilled [foreign] labour looking for short-term work.”

A more hostile environment to EU workers at home could also deter UK workers from taking European jobs – about 290,000 were working across the EU in the final quarter of 2008.

Prevent disputes

Stephen Williams, head of equality at arbitration service Acas, believed HR needs to do more to prevent disputes among the workforce. “In a recession quality – and particularly dignity – are crucial in the workplace,” he says. “By dignity I’m talking about freedom from bullying and harassment.” HR should ensure staff inductions make workers aware of how to treat colleagues from all nationalities, and actively target longer-serving employees who may have been part of “a sheep-dip of equality training a few years back”.

Yet heightened industrial unrest will only be on the cards if the economy fails to recover quickly, according to Evans. “At the moment everyone is being very cautious because of the credit crisis and the recession. But if things get a lot worse there’s a greater chance of militancy because it’s about people trying to protect their jobs. That was the main issue with the Lindsey Oil Refinery.”

Wildcat strikes: are they legal?

For workers to be protected during a strike – and therefore immune to dismissal – there must have been a trade dispute between the employees and their employer. Generally in sympathy strikes, no such trade dispute has occurred and so employees are not protected, according to Lisa Patmore, a partner at law firm Pinsent Masons. Strikers who fail to conduct a ballot of workers or give notice of the action, as with Lindsey, are acting unlawfully, Patmore added.

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