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The recent spate of wildcat strikes and protests against French oil company, Mobil, rejecting local British workers in favour of Italian contract staff are not about immigration.

The unofficial strikes were described by Prime Minister Gordon Brown as “not defensible” in an interview on BBC’s Politics Show today.

Hundreds of employees have staged walkouts across the UK this week over the use of foreign staff at a Lincolnshire refinery.

The Tories said they did not back the strikes either but said Mr Brown’s 2007 “British jobs for British workers” pledge had been exposed as “fiction”.

Unofficial “sympathy strikes” have spread throughout the country, threatening a petrol shortage, after workers walked out at the Lindsey Oil Refinery when owner Total gave a £200m contract to Italian firm IREM.

The UK Government has asked independent mediator ACAS to look into claims that British workers are being illegally excluded from engineering and construction projects.

When questioned about his 2007 Labour conference pledge to create “British jobs for British workers” – a slogan used by the striking refinery workers – Mr Brown said:

“Well, we are part of a single European market but I have always understood the worries that people have.

“They look round and say, well, why can’t we do these jobs ourselves, these are jobs that we can do.

“When I talked about British jobs, I was taking about giving people in Britain the skills, so that they have the ability to get jobs which were at present going to people from abroad.”

But Paul Kenny, General Secretary of the GMB union, said:

“No company should be able to discriminate against anyone on the grounds of where they were born.

“You simply cannot say that only Italians can apply for jobs as has happened in this case. No one is saying that different countries cannot bid for different contracts.”

Health Secretary Alan Johnson said EU laws guaranteeing employment rights had been “undermined” by two recent judgements in the European Court of Justice and the government would push for action at a European level if it was proved British workers were being “undercut” by cheap labour from other parts of the EU.

“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,” he told BBC One’s Andrew Marr show.

“These various judgments have distorted the original intention and we need to bring in fresh directives to make it absolutely clear that people cannot be undercut in this way.”

Conservative Shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague said that no “mainstream” party would promise “British jobs for British workers” as there was free movement of labour in the EU, which the Tories “strongly supported”.

“It was so unbelievably ridiculous and silly for the prime minister to say that in the first place,” Mr Hague said in an interview today.

ACAS chief executive John Taylor said it was at the initial stages of its investigation into the wildcat strikes originating in Lincolnshire.

He said he will be “talking to employers and unions regarding a wider inquiry into the issues around ‘contracting-out’ on large construction projects.”

Comment

The United Kingdom is a tolerant society, which welcomes migrant workers and overseas students.

Whilst scenes of angry British workers on our television screens may be worrying to migrants, these protests have nothing to do with the thousands of overseas (non EU) workers filling jobs in care homes, hospitals or restaurants.

This is very much a European issue involving a French company which appears to be excluding local workers. Britain has signed up to free movement of Labour within the European Union, which means Gordon Brown’s promise of “British jobs for British people” looks like yet another gaff which has come back to haunt him.

There will be no picket lines outside hospital gates because no British worker has been excluded from those jobs. Before a non-European worker can be hired on under Tier 2 of the points based system (previously the Work Permit scheme) the post must be advertised within the EU, unless the job is on the shortage occupations list.

The flow of non-EU workers has always been largely controlled by the marketplace and the availability of jobs.

Health care students taking NVQ courses have no trouble finding jobs in care homes or hospitals, as these jobs are not sought after by the local labour force and thousands of vacancies still exist.

The health care sector employs around 1.3 million people in the UK and should be less vulnerable to job cuts than other industries.

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