British Workers Protest Hiring of Foreign Laborers

Energy workers across Britain walked off their jobs to protest the use of foreign labor. The protest was triggered by a company's decision to use foreign workers at a refinery. Experts fear recession could bring xenophobia.
Energy workers across Britain walked off their jobs to protest the use of foreign labor. The protest was triggered by a company's decision to use foreign workers at a refinery. Experts fear recession could bring xenophobia. (By Anna Gowthorpe -- Associated Press)
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By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 31, 2009

LONDON, Jan. 30 -- Hundreds of British energy workers walked off the job Friday to protest the use of foreign labor on British job sites, the latest sign of an increasing backlash against foreign workers amid the global recession.

Workers carrying placards that said "British jobs for British workers" staged demonstrations at more than a dozen refineries and power stations in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The workers are protesting a decision by Total, the French oil company, to award a $280 million contract to an Italian firm, IREM, for work at a plant in Lincolnshire, England. The project will involve about 400 foreign workers.

Nearly 2 million Britons are jobless, the highest unemployment level since 1997. As job losses mount, officials are reporting increasing antagonism toward foreign workers.

Hundreds of thousands of Poles, Latvians, Lithuanians and other newer members of the European Union flocked to Britain in recent years as the country's economy boomed. But as recession hit, and the buying power of Britain's pound has fallen sharply, increasing numbers of immigrants are returning home. Those who remain are competing with local workers for a far smaller pool of jobs.

Earlier this month, the Federation of Poles in Great Britain blamed the recession for what it said was a 20 percent increase in "racist incidents" directed at Poles. "We are aware that many of these incidents occur because of growing tension in the traditional indigenous population following increasing anxiety about job losses," the group said in a statement.

Officials at the International Organization for Migration, an intergovernmental group based in Geneva, have expressed concern about a potential rise in xenophobia as the recession creates friction between local workers and foreigners in many countries.

Total issued a statement saying the Italian company needs to use its own specialized workers for the project, which would not affect the normal operation of the refinery.

"It is important to note that we have been a major local employer for 40 years with 550 permanent staff employed at the refinery," the statement said. "There are also between 200 and 1,000 contractors working at the refinery, the vast majority of which work for U.K. companies employing local people."

European Union rules require a free flow of labor among member nations. And officials have cautioned that such an important pillar of European unity should not be undermined by an economic downturn.

Bernard McAuley, an official with United, Britain's largest labor union, told demonstrators at a rally Friday in Lincolnshire: "There is sufficient unemployed, skilled labor wanting the right to work on that site, and they are demanding the right to work on that site."

Striking workers also mocked Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who has pledged to fight for "British jobs for British workers."

"All we want is for Gordon Brown to fulfill his promise," one protester told reporters outside the Lincolnshire plant.

Brown, speaking to reporters at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, said he "understood" the protester's concerns. He said government officials were doing "everything we can" to improve economic conditions and create new jobs.


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