Thousands strike as refinery jobs dispute escalates

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The Independent Online

A dispute over jobs at an oil refinery escalated today when thousands of workers took wildcat strike action and sacked construction employees burned their dismissal notices in an act of defiance against French oil giant Total.

Demonstrators outside the Lindsey oil refinery in North Lincolnshire set light to letters in a car park opposite the huge plant in protest at being given until 5pm today to reapply for their jobs.

Almost 650 contract staff working on a major construction project at the refinery were sacked last week by firms working for Total, which runs the refinery, after a week of unofficial industrial action.

A senior executive at Total tonight revealed the project to build a new desulpherisation plant at Lindsey was £100 million over budget and late being completed because of productivity problems and the unofficial strikes.

Michel Benezit, President of Refining and Marketing, told the Press Association the dispute was out of Total's hands because it involved sub-contractors.

"The work should have been finished by now and the unit should be in operation. Because of poor productivity and disputes, we still have a long way to go.

"I want to make it clear that we have not fired anyone because we have no employees involved in this work. There is not much we can do. My only goal is to see an end to the strike as soon as possible. We have already suffered huge cost over-runs."

Sources estimated up to 4,000 contract workers at power stations and oil and gas terminals across the UK took part in unofficial action today as the wildcat strikes spread.

The biggest walkout was at the Sellafield nuclear site in Cumbria where 900 contract staff held a meeting and decided to stay out until Wednesday.

Sellafield said the action did not involve its own employees, stressing the site remained open and operational.

Around 400 workers at two gas plants in west Wales joined the strike, as did 200 contractors at Drax and Eggborough power stations near Selby, North Yorkshire.

Workers at Fiddlers Ferry power station in Widnes, Cheshire, Shell's Stanlow refinery in Ellesmere Port, Cheshire, and Didcot power station in Oxfordshire also took unofficial strike action.

The GMB union is organising a huge protest outside the Lindsey terminal early tomorrow, with general secretary Paul Kenny among the speakers.

The union tonight accused management of provoking the dispute, which was sparked when 51 workers were laid off at the same time as another contractor on the site was hiring staff.

The GMB claimed that a senior manager said he was not prepared to recommend that the laid off workers should be taken on because they were "unruly" and had taken part in unofficial disputes as well as refusing to work weekends.

Phil Davies, national officer of the GMB, said: "Every stone you uncover on this job you find another management lie. It is clear that there never was any intention to redeploy these workers despite the company agreeing to do this just a few short weeks ago.

"It is little wonder that the workforce castigate the company as being dishonest. This is a clear case of victimisation on a par with the notorious industry blacklists."

Unite's national officer, Tom Hardacre said: "The outrageous sacking of workers at Lindsey is one of the most aggressive acts I've witnessed as a trade union official. Even some of the employers at Lindsey did not want to issue the letters to the workers but were forced to do so.

"Last week we were attempting to broker a deal to get a resolution to the unofficial dispute but Total have allowed the dispute to escalate without any strategy to resolve the problems.

"Unite is available to join the employers at the table to develop a sensible resolution and we call upon the employers for a positive response."

Protesters queued to throw their dismissal letters into a blazing dustbin outside Lindsey this morning to cheers from a crowd of around 300 colleagues.

Phil Whitehurst, of the GMB union, told the crowd: "Let them show us how many want to go back in there crawling on their bellies for their jobs. We go out together, we go back together."

Total said today that, given the number of sub-contractors on the site, the number of workers reapplying for their jobs would not be known until the end of the week.

The company said: "Total has been encouraged by the initial feedback our contract companies have received from their former workforces."

The company said it was hopeful that work on a construction project which has been halted because of the dispute will be able to restart in the next few weeks.

"Total wishes to stress that at no stage has it asked its contract companies to reduce their workforce's pay and conditions in any way and will not seek to do so.

"Total calls for all parties to respect employment law and to work together within the nationally negotiated agreements to which they are signatories."

Prime Minister Gordon Brown's spokesman said: "It continues to be our view that the parties do need to talk - ideally through Acas."