Wildcat strikes over foreign workers expected to spread

Splits appear within government ranks after Prime Minister and Lord Mandelson condemn illegal industrial action at energy plants.

Energy plants around the UK are bracing themselves for another outbreak of wildcat strikes this morning in protest at the employment of foreign workers on construction sites.

Yesterday, ministers appeared divided between those wanting to condemn the illegal strikes, and those who believe the Government should be listening to the workers' complaints, even if they do not condone their actions. The pressure on ministers to act will increase as preparations go ahead for a lobby of Parliament to protest at using Spanish workers to construct a power station at Staythorpe, in Nottinghamshire.

Trade union leaders are walking a delicate line because they cannot organise or condone wildcat strikes, illegal under laws passed in the 1980s, but they want to be seen defending their members who feel threatened by the spectacle of jobs being awarded to foreign contract workers.

Paul Kenny, leader of the 570,000-strong general union, the GMB, attacked the Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson, who pointed out that the same laws that allow EU workers to work in Britain also open EU jobs to British workers. Mr Kenny compared him with Norman Tebbit, the right-wing Tory who was Employment Secretary in the 1980s who suggested that the unemployed should get on their bikes and look for work. Mr Kenny said: "For Mandelson to come out with the Norman Tebbit line to get on your bike and go to Brussels is outrageous."

The GMB has circulated Labour MPs complaining that two power stations and an oil refinery have foreign contractors working on site who are refusing to employ British workers. They are being asked to support a lobby of Parliament planned on 10 February.

Steve Kemp, a GMB political officer, claimed that a French firm, Alstom, is employing Spanish sub-contractors to build the Staythorpe station in Newark. "The sub-contractors are employing Spanish workers and are totally refusing to employ UK-based unemployed workers. This is even after Alstom instructed the sub-contractor to employ UK workers," he said. "It has also come to GMB's attention that Alstom intends to employ some 250 foreign workers at the same power station." No one from Alstom could be contacted yesterday.

This week, Britain's largest union, Unite, will call together dozens of shop stewards from construction sites around the country for an emergency conference which it hopes will persuade ministers of the need to act. The engineering section of Unite has traditionally been closer to Gordon Brown than almost any other union.

The strikes began last week as a local protest against the use of Italian and Portuguese labour at the Lindsey oil refinery in Lincolnshire and spread rapidly across the north of England to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The oil firm, Total, which owns the refinery, said: "It is legal for sub-contractors to supply their own employees but where vacancies are advertised we will be working with our sub-contractors to ensure that British workers are considered in the same way as anyone else."

Lord Mandelson said: "This should give full reassurance to people who are understandably concerned about jobs that there will be no policy of discrimination against British companies, and where vacancies are advertised at these plants, British workers will be free to apply. I welcome this statement. It establishes the facts and makes it clear that British law will be fully upheld."

But the statement from Total may not be enough to prevent more strikes. They are expected to start again at Britain's largest nuclear plant, Sellafield, where hundreds of construction workers are expected to attend a mass protest meeting in a nearby car park.

"We really don't know how many will be out on strike tomorrow," one union official said. "It's very difficult to gauge the extent of it, because they often don't tell us until the last minute. This is spontaneous action. One minute, there is a meeting. The next minute, they're out on strike. We're calling together the shop stewards. These are not the people organising the strikes; they are the official, elected representatives."

Gordon Brown told BBC1's Politics Show yesterday that he understood workers' fears over jobs, but said walkouts were "not the right thing to do and it's not defensible". One minister privately contradicted him, saying: "Telling workers that we should not revert to protectionism does not mean much when they are worried about their jobs. We don't condone illegal action but the concerns they have expressed are justified."

But the Health Secretary, Alan Johnson, a former head of the post office workers' trade union, struck a different note when he called for EU law to be changed to prevent companies undercutting local wage rates by employing foreign workers. Other ministers expressed doubts for a revised EU directive. A Brown ally said: "That's not good politics. It would arise great expectations. We might not get agreement and, even if we did, it would take months."

Unions across the EU have been campaigning for months for a change, after two court judgments, in Sweden and Finland, which interpreted EU law to mean that firms there were permitted to employ workers from the former communist states on the Baltic coast at rates that undercut Scandinavian wages and conditions.

"If workers are being brought across here on worse terms and conditions to actually get jobs in front of British workers on the basis of dumbing down the terms and conditions, that would be wrong and I can understand the anger about that," Mr Johnson told BBC's Andrew Marr programme. "I don't think wildcat strikes help in this situation. What we do need is a calm analysis of actually what's happening. It's quite right for British companies to be able to go and bid for jobs and British workers throughout the European Union and it's quite right for that to be reciprocal."

Labour MPs backed Mr Johnson in calling for a change in EU law. The former Labour minister Frank Field, co-chairman of a cross-party group on immigration, said: "This form of contract clearly cannot go on, where contracts are awarded and there's free movement of companies but those companies then restrict who can apply for those jobs."

Peter Hain, another former minister, said something had gone "badly wrong" with the Britain's labour laws and said it was time to stop "gold plating" EU legislation and "stand up for the rights of British workers". He said the way the law had been implemented did not seem to have "adequately protected local workers" who had the necessary skills.

But Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, warned: "Any attempt to ban EU citizens from jobs in Britain would be a massive own goal. If every EU country followed suit, we would have to cope with a massive influx of British people who work overseas."