by Gregor Gall
Construction workers’ anger against the employment of foreign labourers has boiled over. The revolt that started on Wednesday this week in Lincolnshire at the Lindsey oil refinery, then spread north to other parts of Humber and Tees, and has now reach Scotland and Wales. Around 3,000 workers have walked out on unofficial strike and they have been joined by several thousand other unemployed construction workers in protests at various construction sites.
This is the first sign of a robust, collective response by workers to the economic downturn, and it is clear that this spreading solidarity and sympathy action has been driven by the membership. In a growing economy, the employment of foreign labour for workers is not necessarily a problem for existing workers, so long as the extra labour is a supplement rather than an alternative and on the same wages and conditions as those of existing workers.
But come a recession, particularly in a sector where work has always been sporadic, peripatetic and discontinuous because of the nature of the construction projects, this balance can change quickly and dramatically. Earlier in January this year, Unite organised a demonstration at a power station construction site in Nottinghamshire to highlight the issue of foreign contractors employing only foreign labour. This practice has continued to anger workers as mass unemployment continues mounts. As reported by the Guardian, their outrage is not against the employment of foreign workers as such, but that some contractors are only employing foreign workers:
“The argument is not against foreign workers, it’s against foreign companies discriminating against British labour … If the job of these mechanical contractors … at INEOS finishes and they try and get jobs down south, the jobs are already occupied by foreign labour and their opportunities are decreasing. This is a fight for work. It is a fight for the right to work in our own country. It is not a racist argument at all.”
This perceived injustice is arguably supported in European law by the outlawing of discrimination on the basis of nationality – because it goes against the full and free movement of labour within the EU. But alongside this argument, there are those who see the issue and strikes in racist and xenophobic terms – about the need to reserve “British jobs for British workers” at any cost. They have supported the strike explicitly so. The British National party and other far-right forces like the UK Independence party could make political capital out of such sentiment, especially in the run up to the European elections in June this year.
What gives these views real purchase is that Gordon Brown, when chancellor in 2007, promised “British job for British workers” and, judging by the strikers’ placards, they have not forgotten this. Indeed, the slogan has come back to haunt No10: while Gordon Brown tells his audience at Davos that “protectionism protects nobody”, a Downing Street spokesman has the awkward job of maintaining that the prime minister has no cause to regret his earlier words. But the unions and the left in Britain could equally well use the political opportunity to mobilise a huge campaign to demand the right to work as they did in the 1970s and 1980s.
The strike raises thorny issues for the government. Gordon Brown will resist the pressure for what many would term “economic nationalism” because of the arguments that protectionism and trade barriers will lead to less global trade, worsen the existing recession and promote economic inefficiency. He will no doubt be aware of the political ramifications of what these policies did, when implemented, in Europe in the 1930s. But the longer his market-led solutions to market-created problems show no sign of working, the more electors will feel, as protesters in France were saying this week of their leader, he has merely indemnified the banks against their own recklessness and the greater pressure he will come under to move down this protectionist road.