Deborah Orr: The protesters have a point: businesses can't ignore society

Saturday 31 January 2009 01:00

A local protest over the wholesale import of a team of foreign workers has been supported with enthusiasm around the country. Plenty of people agree with workers at the Lindsey oil refinery, who say that local construction workers need, and should be given, the 400 jobs that will be created to build a new desulphurisation unit.

The speed at which wildcat strikes have been staged at other refineries and power plants is an indication of the strength of the anger and fear felt by people who work in construction, the first real-economy sector to feel the harsh bite of the recession. Until now, concerns about the spectre of civil unrest returning during the downturn have been largely abstract. Suddenly, those worries feel very real.

Protesters have been quick to adopt Gordon Brown's various declarations of support for "British jobs for British workers" in order to press home their message. Brown's reaction to the strikes and demonstrations is a promise that he'll have a talk with industry and ask its leaders to be mindful of the unemployment situation in Britain. Realistically, as he plods the international stump, warning against beggar-my-neighbour protectionism, Brown can do no more than ask prospective employers to remember that it's nice to be nice.

Union leaders speaking for the protesters have so far strived to emphasise that they are not making any sort of stand against foreign nationals who live in Britain, or immigrants to the country getting work. They have expressed disgust as British National Party organisers who are visiting picket lines in the hope of benefiting from this outpouring of dissatisfaction. Instead, their anger is about workers being brought in to do specific jobs that local people have not been given the opportunity to apply for or do.

The workers at the Lindsey plant are mainly Italian and Portuguese. They are to be housed in barges moored at the dock, and no doubt it is expected that they will do little other than work and sleep and save. The arrangements suggest that the contractor that employs them, the Italian company Irem, has a preference for young single people looking to acquire a lump sum for the future. They are "guest workers", just like the lines of young men who criss-cross the airport at Dubai, standing in identical uniforms, and displaying quiet obsequiousness, as they are shipped in and out of the emirate en masse. Those employing them insist, rightly, that these men are grateful for the opportunity to earn some money to take back home. This, they say, more contentiously, is how globalisation enriches everyone.

The multinationals, of course, don't adopt employment policies with the intention of redistributing wealth more equitably around the world. Instead they sell self-interest as a marvellous tool that generates nothing but good. But is it really so good to offer no loyalty to the local community in which one operates, and to promote social decay instead of social cohesion, by declaring a preference for workers whose daily shifts can be arranged without the unwelcome encumbrance of family ties or rooted lives? As individuals we are all asked to reject anti-social behaviour. But those running companies need not, it seems, concern themselves with prioritising pro-social activity at all.

Even when Britain was booming, and unemployment was at a historical low, there was resentment against immigrant workers, who at that time were accused not only of "taking" jobs but also of keeping wages low. Now, as many people face uncertain and sometimes desperate times, a destabilising and ugly increase in those sorts of resentments has to be expected. Yet the British Chamber of Commerce has already made a tacit declaration that such perilous issues are of no concern to it. The body simply insists that during competitive times in the global market, contracts like those offered at the Lindsey refinery are likely to become more common.

During the recession of the 1980s, the television comedy drama Auf Wiedersehen, Pet entertained a traumatised nation with tales of a group of British construction workers who had been compelled to seek work in Germany, and accept extremely modest working conditions as they did so. It's notable that the first widespread outpouring of frustration during this recession focuses on the opposite scenario.

No doubt, as unemployment bites, many more ordinary British workers will feel compelled to go where they can find work in turn. The commercial advantages of having dedicated forces living virtually on site, with nothing in the way of tiresome things like family interaction to distract them from their work, are clear. The social price such dismal practices exact is every bit as obvious, and is only likely to become more so.

Brown's anti-protectionist stance looks more threadbare by the day. Another reminder that it's nice to be nice has been directed at supermarkets. They are accused of undermining the Government's attempts to persuade us to buy British by labelling foreign meat in ways that suggest it is home produced. It's a shame really that no one took a more robust stand on this earlier, simply in on the principle that honesty is desirable, and attempting to gull King Consumer is not.

Should the world know if Amy's away?

Amy Winehouse has something new to add to her long list of troubles – the burglary of her London home while she was on holiday in St Lucia. The crime is hardly surprising. Burglary is proving a popular pastime at present, and all those likely to have their holiday habits reported in the media need to bear this in mind.

Thanks to the intrusive but lucrative trade in photographs of the private lives of celebrities, the homes of the famous are easy to spot because they always have gangs of snappers standing around outside them. Thanks to the dedicated working of the same trade, any fool can work out when the homes of publicity magnets are empty.

High-profile footballers in some parts of the country have already become used to burglaries during away matches. It's hard to believe that the empty homes of the rich and highly publicised are not going to be targeted even more enthusiastically in future. No doubt the taxpayer, rather than those profiting from the dissemination of endless bikini shots, will have to foot the bill for any extra police vigilance deemed necessary.

The price others paid for John Martyn's creativity

I love John Martyn's music. But I had the misfortune to be sitting near his party in an Edinburgh bar in the early 1980s. It took me a while before I could reconcile the sweet romanticism of his songs with the rude, drunk, aggressive and demanding boor who had dominated everybody's evening.

It was tragic to observe over the years that he grew no wiser as he grew older, even though his self-destructive ways led to leg amputation, then early death. Like a lot of creative types, Martyn, right, died believing that his dreadful behaviour was justified because of his art, and even that the latter would not have existed or thrived without the former.

It's a great shame that he never ever stopped to ask why so much of his most celebrated work had already been completed while he was still a young man, less damaged by the ravages of his poor lifestyle choices. It's amazing, really, that even though the spectacle of talent squandered in such a way is ubiquitous, the myth of the desirability of creative chaos, and artistic "suffering", maintains such a firm cultural hold.

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