NORTH KILLINGHOLME, England (Reuters) - Oil workers voted on Thursday to end a week-long unofficial strike over the use of foreign labour at a French-owned oil refinery that sparked sympathy protests across Britain.
Maintenance and construction workers at the Total-owned Lindsey plant in eastern England will return to work on Monday after accepting a union-backed deal that will give British skilled workers 102 new jobs at the site.
“We’ve no grievance against the foreign workers, it’s the laws that need to be sorted out properly from the bottom up to create a level playing field,” said Stewart Roe, a 61-year-old pipe fitter from the nearby city of Hull.
Industrial unrest is intensifying across Europe as fears grow over the impact of the economic downturn, putting politicians appealing against protectionism at odds with workers worried about job security.
The European Union executive said there was no need to tighten up labour laws across the 27-country bloc.
“Let’s not move the goalposts,” European Commission spokesman Johannes Laitenberger told reporters. “It’s not free movement that is causing problems.”
The dispute over the use of Portuguese and Italian contractors at a time of surging unemployment triggered several sympathy protests across Britain. Workers complained that foreign companies were overlooking skilled British workers.
“We would like to highlight that we have not, and will not, discriminate against British companies and British workers,” Total said in a statement.
Although they have not organised the strikes, British unions hope most of the sympathy protests will wind down.
But they have said there could be more action at other sites where foreign skilled workers have been drafted in, especially where the foreign workers are accepting lower pay than Britons.
There is a danger of copycat protests in Europe, where laws enshrining the free movement of labour have allowed millions to migrate to work.
The left-wing leader of Italy’s biggest union said such labour disputes could spread and become racist.
“I understand it (the British strike), but I think we have to be careful, because if unemployment is used against workers from other countries -- never mind if they are Italian or not -- this is a very delicate issue,” Guglielmo Epifani of the General Confederation of Italian Workers told Reuters.
“It would mean Italians could only work in Italy, English in England and the French in France,” he said.
The Lindsey dispute started last week when British contract workers in the welding and machine-engineering trades launched protests against the employment of about 200 Italian and Portuguese on the construction of a new plant.
The strike has embarrassed Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who pledged “British jobs for British workers” in 2007. Many protesters held placards bearing that slogan.
Brown, currently urging nations around the world not to retreat into protectionism as the global economy weakens, is now under pressure to ensure local workers are not excluded from contracts on British soil.
“Lindsey is part of a much wider problem that will not go away,” said Derek Simpson, joint general secretary of Britain’s biggest union, Unite.
“No European worker should be barred from applying for a British job and absolutely no British worker should be barred from applying for a British job.”
Brown is also wary of alienating the unions that provide much of his ruling Labour party’s funding and grassroots support in the run-in to what is already likely to prove a tough election, due by May 2010.
Additional reporting by Huw Jones; Writing by Matt Falloon; Editing by Kevin Liffey
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