How the issue of foreign workers has poisoned industrial relations

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The angry faces of workers protesting outside Lindsey oil refinery yesterday left onlookers with a strong sense of déja vu.

Five months ago, another bitter labour dispute at the Lincolnshire site sparked a series of unofficial walkouts by thousands of workers at more than a dozen oil refineries, gas terminals and power stations across England and Wales. Yesterday, the domino effect of "wildcat" strikes loomed large.

The dispute in January and February began when an Italian contractor brought in Italian and Portuguese workers to build a new desulphurisation plant. Furious staff demanded that Gordon Brown honour his promise to create "British jobs for British workers", and staged an impromptu walkout. The stand-off only ended after the company created 102 new local positions.

Yesterday's unofficial action at the Total refinery was not about foreign workers, but that episode still poisons the relationship between shop floor and executives. Many staff at the company feel the issue was never properly resolved.

Picketers gripe that management has treated them with contempt by not consulting about the sacking of 50 workers nine days ago. Then Total refused to negotiate until staff stopped a series of rolling walkouts. Seen in context, it is a classic case of a breakdown in relations between employees and the bosses. Such relations are notably restrained in parts of the construction industry.

The construction industry has been hit hard by the recession. In the UK, workers are in the unique position of having industry collective agreements which standardise minimum wages and entitlements.

"What the unions would like to see, and one can understand their point of view, is European law amended to say you cannot bring people into the UK below the prevailing rights and wages," said Alistair Tebbit, head of employment policy at the Institute of Directors.

"With a host of vital infrastructure projects under way or in the pipeline, such as new power stations and Crossrail, it is deeply worrying that we are seeing more and more illegal strike action taking place in the construction sector."

He added: "The law is clear: there must be an official ballot before there can be a strike. We urge the Government to ensure the law is properly enforced."

The research group Income Data Services says that conflict between companies and their workers has so far been much lower in this recession than in previous ones.

Paul Nowak, TUC national organiser, insisted that the country was not heading for a "summer of discontent" because "our members are sensible enough to know when a company really faces difficulties and needs to make hard decisions – in contrast with profitable companies that are effectively crying recession wolf". The worry for execs in febrile sectors is that the mood could be contagious.