The Workers: Italians in the eye of storm keep their cool

Click to follow

It was not difficult to spot the Italian workers as they emerged yesterday from behind the eight-foot-high security fence that protects their floating home by the docks at Grimsby's fish harbour.

Those looking to kill a few hours before returning to the Lindsey refinery at North Killingholme for their next shift (installing a new desulphurisation plant for the French oil giant Total) were standing in small groups chatting and smoking.

Despite the gloomy half-light reflecting off the chilly waters of the Humber estuary, many sported designer sunglasses and defied the fashion for high visibility workwear of their hosts in favour of designer jeans and well-fitted leather jackets.

The official line from the 100 Italian and Portuguese craftsmen billeted here since just after Christmas, was a polite "no comment" – enforced by port security guards who made it their business to escort passing journalists off the premises.

But as a police squad car pulled up yesterday afternoon to help ward off unwanted guests, there was no doubt that following a third day of industrial action outside their workplace, these skilled workers and fellow European Union members are now living in a heavily fortified ghetto that is not of their own choosing.

Over at a nearby bar, named TC's, the last of the lunchtime crowd were finishing their drinks. Earlier that day police vans had been parked up along the side of the bar, according to one regular, to prevent "the local lads sorting out the 'Itis' ". Now, as the fish market wound down for the day, with piles of fish bones stacked up outside the shuttered warehouses and the smell of smoked haddock permeating the air, talk was of simmering unease between locals and guests.

"They don't get locals in to do skilled jobs like this," complained one dock worker. Some locals say that Italians have clashed with young English men in "Meggie" (the local name for the adjoining town of Cleethorpes), though police say they have received no reports of violence. Others ask why the foreign workers are being housed aboard the former Dutch Navy barge – said to be "a palace" – rather than staying at guest houses and bringing money into the local economy.

The refurbished, three-storey barge chartered for the Italian workers by the accommodation specialists Sanderson Maritime does boast a bar and an 80-seat cinema, although sleeping accommodation is functional rather than luxurious.

But local people recall how this southern bank of the Humber is no stranger to outsiders; foreign fishermen have been coming to the town for centuries. Grimsby has a significant east European population, while the farms on the surrounding flatlands have long relied on foreign labour to bring in the harvest.