LONDON (Reuters) - Hundreds of nuclear workers joined nationwide protests against the use of foreign-contracted labour on Monday, saying Britons were losing out at a time of rising unemployment and economic recession.
About 900 contractors at the Sellafield nuclear processing plant in northern England walked off the job, joining more than 1,000 others in the fuel and energy industries who have carried out impromptu strikes over foreign labour in recent days.
The work stoppages began when British workers at the Lindsey refinery in eastern England, owned by French oil giant Total, launched a protest against the use of Italian and Portuguese contractors on a major construction project.
Total has said the foreign workers were employed according to European and British law and has said that no British workers were discriminated against in the hiring process. It is holding talks with unions and negotiators to try to resolve the issue.
While unions have not called for the strikes, the industrial action appears to be spreading at a time of deepening economic uncertainty, with Internet forums encouraging workers to carry out wildcat sympathy work stoppages.
Despite the interruptions, the National Grid said there had been no impact on gas or electricity supplies.
The widening action is a reflection of growing worker unease as the economy moves deeper into recession and unemployment climbs. Almost two million Britons are now jobless, with the unemployment rate over 6 percent and rising.
Organisers denied the sympathy strikes were anti-foreign, saying they wanted to create a level playing field for all.
“We are not trying to stop foreign labour coming to Britain, we are trying to stop them coming in and being paid less than we are and under-cutting us,” Bill Eilbeck, a union organiser at the Sellafield plant, told reporters.
“We are really asking for equal rights, not just for us but for the foreign workers as well. If the government do not listen to us the situation could escalate even further and you will be seeing more strikes, which we do not want to happen.”
The labour unrest in Britain follows economic protests in Greece, Russia, France and China, prompting analysts to caution about more widespread economic nationalism.
“It is always worrying when you hear of more anger and rhetoric against foreigners particularly from unions,” said Lars Christensen, head of emerging research at Danske Bank in Copenhagen. “It is certainly worth watching.”
The dispute is proving an embarrassment for Prime Minister Gordon Brown who in a speech after taking power in mid-2007 pledged “British jobs for British workers.”
On Monday he expressed sympathy with those struggling to find work but also said strikes were the wrong course of action.
“I recognise that people are worried about their jobs at the moment and I want them and their colleagues to be treated fairly,” he said. “But I do not believe that the strike action that is happening is anything other than counterproductive.”
Brown faces a parliamentary election by mid-2010 and is concerned unrest could damage his Labour party, traditionally the party of the working classes and funded by the unions. Labour trail the Conservatives in opinion polls.
The foreign-labour dispute threatened to spread beyond Britain’s borders, with Italian unionists registering their disapproval at the way Italian workers were being treated.
Italy’s infrastructure minister, Altero Matteoli, said Britain needed to realise it was part of Europe “where there is freedom of movement for workers.”