Talks resume on foreign labour dispute

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The Independent Online

Crucial talks aimed at resolving the bitter row over foreign labour resumed today as workers continued to take wildcat industrial action at sites across the country.

The venue for the meeting was switched to a hotel near Grimsby after the media turned up in force at the start of the talks in Scunthorpe yesterday.

Hundreds of strikers held another protest today at the Lindsey Oil Refinery in North Lincolnshire, where the dispute flared after a contract was awarded to an Italian sub-contractor, who hired its own workforce from Italy and Portugal.

Unofficial strike action at the plant has sparked copycat protests from thousands of workers at power stations and other construction sites across the country, which continued today.

The talks were being held under the chairmanship of the conciliation service Acas and involved unions, Total, which owns the Lincolnshire oil refinery, the Italian firm at the centre of the row, as well as shop stewards.

The oil firm has urged workers to end the unofficial action at the refinery in North Killingholme as soon as possible, stressing that it had never discriminated against British companies or British workers.

But unions continued to maintain that UK workers were denied the chance to work on the contract.

Business Secretary Lord Mandelson said he did not think Total had broken any UK laws and that he was determined to see "robust enforcement" of the country's employment rights.

He added: "We should keep our sights set firmly not on the politics of xenophobia but on the economics of this recession."

GMB union leader Paul Kenny said the Government was "inching" towards trying to tackle the issue of overseas firms bringing an entire workforce to the UK.

At a mass meeting outside the Lindsey refinery today, strike leaders addressed around 400 protesters ahead of the meeting.

Keith Gibson, of the GMB union, said: "They are trying to bring it round to the racist issue. I think we've got to say quite clearly this morning, this issue is a class issue.

"This issue is based around the defence of the construction industry national agreement which, we believe, with their use of foreign labour or otherwise, is a direct attack on a national agreement.

"They won't be happy until they've broken that agreement, until they've lowered the wages and living standards of construction workers in this industry."

John Monks, general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation, said the dispute was typical of problems which had become apparent across the EU where workers were employed outside their home country.

The issue arose in Britain because UK law requires foreign workers to be employed only in line with minimum legal conditions, rather than on the same pay and conditions as home-grown staff in the same jobs, said Mr Monks.

This meant that workers from countries where pay and conditions are less favourable are able to undercut British workers, but European law deems that any attempt by unions to enforce the same conditions would breach directives on the free movement of labour.

"That's not good enough for us," Mr Monks told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme. "The combination of the British law and European law is inadequate to deal with the kind of situation we have got at the moment. The Government needs to look at the way it applies the European law."