Stand up for the workers, Labour MPs tell Brown

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Gordon Brown suffered a backlash from backbench Labour MPs over his handling of the wildcat strikes over foreign workers yesterday.

Several criticised the tough stance taken by the Prime Minister and the Business Secretary Lord Mandelson, who said the unofficial protests were counterproductive and that a retreat into protectionism would turn the recession into a depression.

Workers at power stations and nuclear plants are demonstrating against the employment of foreign workers on contracts from which they say British workers were unfairly excluded.

Hundreds braved blizzard conditions to protest outside the Lindsey oil refinery in Lincolnshire, where the dispute began six days ago. That action has set off sympathy strikes across the UK. Yesterday, 600 workers at the country's largest nuclear power station, at Sellafield in Cumbria, staged a 24-hour walkout. They were joined by 1,000 workers at other plants.

Labour MPs will hold talks with unions and plan to table a Commons motion registering their concern that skilled Britons are missing out on jobs.

Mr Brown and Lord Mandelson said they understand the anxieties of the workers but senior Labour MPs said their language has been too harsh. One former cabinet minister told The Independent: "If we don't stand up for these people, we will drive them into the arms of the BNP."

Michael Meacher, a former environment minister, said Lord Mandelson's warning about a depression was "misguided". "This is a defining moment for the Government."

Negotiators tried to hold secret meetings with union leaders yesterday but demonstrators surrounded the venue. In the Commons, Labour backbenchers expressed fears that Italian and Portuguese workers at Total's Lindsey refinery in Lincolnshire were being paid less than British employees. The company denies this.

Local MP Shona McIsaac said the use of foreign workers could be "toxic" for unemployed skilled people. Frank Field expressed his "dismay" at the way ministers were interpreting EU law.

Kate Hoey, the Labour MP for Vauxhall, said Lord Mandelson was "rather silly" to suggest British workers find a job overseas, but Pat McFadden, the Employment minister, denied Lord Mandelson had echoed Lord Tebbit by telling workers to get on their bike. "It is not what he said; it is not what he meant; that is a distortion."

Kenneth Clarke, the shadow Business Secretary, said Mr Brown's 2007 pledge to create "British jobs for British workers" was "irresponsible" and "populist nonsense".

Mr Brown said: "An unofficial strike is a counterproductive way of solving problems that can actually be solved by discussion and by negotiation." Lord Mandelson told peers: "We will always enforce the law if it comes to light that the law has been broken. But ... I see no instance in which UK law has been broken." He defended free labour movement across the EU: "It guarantees the right of hundreds of thousands of British workers and companies to operate elsewhere in Europe."

Total tried to calm the situation by promising most of the workers it hires in Britain will always be British. The engineering firm Alstom, which has seen protests over the employment of Spanish workers at Staythorpe in Nottinghamshire, also issued a statement intended to calm protesters.

The Italian worker photographed making a one-finger gesture at strikers has been sent home along with two others seen in the picture. Union leaders have been careful not to be seen to be behind the wildcat strikes, illegal under UK law, although they support the strikers' case. But officials from the Unite and GMB unions drew a small crowd of protesters when they went to meet Total management and staff from the conciliation service, Acas, at the Forest Pines hotel in Scunthorpe.

Police allowed a small delegation from the group of protesters into the hotel, where a Unite official, Tom Hardcastle, assured them that nothing was being decided except the terms of reference for future meetings.

The protesters are anxious to avoid any implication xenophobic hostility to foreign workers is behind their action. They say their protest is against what they see as unfair competition.

Contractors walked out yesterday at the South Hook terminal, Aberthaw power station in south Wales; Drax power station at Selby, North Yorkshire; and Fiddlers Ferry power station near Warrington, Cheshire. In Scotland, 400 contract staff at Longannet in Fife voted to take another day of action. However, 300 contractors at the Grangemouth refinery said they would return to work today.

The owners of Coryton oil refinery in Thurrock, Essex, said workers had also failed to report for duty but operations remained unaffected. Heysham nuclear power station in Lancashire and Staythorpe power station near Newark in Nottinghamshire were also affected by the unofficial action.

Pete Charlow, 40, a scaffolder from Hull, is worried about future jobs: "I have got a young son who is coming up into the industry. British workers round here can't get a foot in the door."

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