Tuesday, 3 February 2009
With the recession biting and unemployment rising, Britain has begun to experience social unrest. At issue; the practice of legally employing foreign European workers in certain sectors while some Britons remain unemployed.
The economic strains that first appeared in the U.S. sub prime market last year can now be measured in terms of growing social unrest here in Europe as people confront an uncertain future under the backdrop of growing unemployment. Demonstrators have hit the streets of Iceland, Russia and France during the last week. That unrest has now reached the shores of Britain with a week old slick being washed up on the east cost near the former fishing Town of Grimsby.
The protests prompted by a decision to bring in hundreds of Italian and Portuguese contractors to work on a new £200m plant at the Lindsey oil refinery, in North Lincolnshire. However trade unionists claim that Britons were not given any opportunity to apply for the vacant posts; and so this dispute has received considerable publicity with scenes reminisce of 1970s style mass meetings. As the strike action by refinery workers over the use of foreign labour continued on Monday, the Communist Party of Britain (Morning Star) and the Socialist Party (Militant) sought to defend the demand for "British jobs for British workers", and it has to be said; as apposed to the employment of Italian and Portuguese workers by IREM, an Italian sub-contractor that made the successful bid to construct a desulphurisation unit at the Total oil company's refinery in Lincolnshire.
With unions claiming that IREM are discriminating against "local" labour, contractors at other facilities nationally joined the protest.
The protests at Lindsey oil refinery are unofficial - however the use of a cheap labour workforce is a time-honoured method by employers to undermine wages and conditions, and is a legitimate matter for opposition. But there is no concrete evidence that this is the issue involved in the current dispute, the view is that European management are using the free movement of labour within the EU to undercut wages and undermine trade unions. The Italian and Portuguese workers brought into the refinery are not paid much less than their British counterparts. That being said, they are being housed in a nearby Grimsby docks on huge ex-prison ships allowing the company to pay a lower real rate as well as rake in some cash on accommodation provision. An article in the Mail on Sunday reported that Bernard McAuley, regional officer of the Unite trade union at the centre of the protests, was involved in three meetings in the last month with IREM directors where agreement over the terms and conditions of the 140-strong Italian workforce, including wages and tea breaks, was struck. The unions claim they are unable to verify the specific terms on which the Italian and Portuguese workers are employed. Even leaving to one side the Mail's account of McAuley's meetings with IREM, if this is believable it speaks volumes about the union. The Mail reported that Unite/Amicus leader Derek Simpson had warned Brown three weeks ago "that there would be industrial unrest if the influx of foreign workers did not stop."
A Unite Amicus press statement reads, "The government has invested billions of pounds into the economy to support jobs during this recession. This strategy depends on employers playing their part."
In the UK alone in the last three months, more than 300,000 jobs have been lost. Some 1,200 jobs have been shed at Nissan, Sunderland. Honda has shut its Swindon plant for four months, affecting 4,200 workers, and Corus has laid off 2,500 steelworkers.
No one should be fooled by the statements of various union officials and their apologists in the Communist Party of Britain, the Socialist Party and others—that the oil refinery dispute represents a fight back against the economic crisis.
In every instance, the unions have worked with management and the government to ensure orderly lay-offs, pay cuts and other measures at workers' expense. At Corus in Scunthorpe for example—not far from the Lindsay oil refinery—the unions agreed to workers being stood down on half pay. And union leaders at Jaguar Land Rover, which employs 15,000 people in the UK, are in talks with management over a "menu" of pay cuts.
Making clear that non-British labour is the union's target, another release from Unite/Amicus states explicitly, "It makes no economic sense to bring in [non-local] workers... But if Unite/Amicus cannot make the contractors see sense, then it is up to Government to do so."
The stance of the unions and the pseudo-left groups to the oil refinery protests must serve as a warning. Faced with a major economic crisis that threatens the survival of the capitalist profit system itself, their response is to adopt the noxious policy of economic nationalism and anti-migrant propaganda, while embracing the government and the employers as the allies of "British workers".
The strikes notably do not challenge the rights of bosses to exploit workers universally, but rather demand that they exploit their own local or national workforce instead!
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