David Prosser: Total's ominous message

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The Independent Online

Outlook There was, no doubt, an element of brinkmanship in yesterday's statements from Total on its troubled project to extend the Lindsey oil refinery at Grimsby. The French company said the project was six months behind schedule, £100m over budget and plagued by low productivity. Still, we should worry about the hint of menace from a company that is, after all, investing in Britain.

Total's message to intransigent workers was "don't push us too far or we'll pull the plug altogether". The company, which has sacked 900 workers following wildcat strikes, will also hope ministers were listening – just about the last thing Britain needs right now is for the few overseas companies still spending money here to pack up and go home. Another reading of Total's statement might be that it doesn't think much of British workers, which may be one reason why it is happy for its contractors to import foreign labour into the UK, even if it causes political strife.

This is dangerous territory. We cannot countenance foreign companies holding us to ransom, demanding changes to labour market laws, or that workers do not ever moan about anything. But a neutral's reading of this dispute would favour Total, and we should take its complaints seriously.