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Oil refinery strike spreads
By Ed Crooks, Arush Chopra and Andrew Taylor
Published: January 30 2009 10:28 | Last updated: January 30 2009 12:46
Strikes and protests have been staged by workers at several British refineries and power plants on Friday in the widening dispute over the hiring of foreign workers for a refinery construction project on the east coast of England.
Total’s Lindsey oil refinery at Killingholme and the nearby ConocoPhillips refinery at Humber, both in Lincolnshire, the Ineos refinery at Grangemouth in Scotland and the Petroplus refinery on Teesside were all hit by walk-outs.
Contractors at other sites in Scotland, including two power stations, a gas plant and a chemical plant, took part in demonstrations, union officials said. There were no signs of any disruption to fuel supplies.
The dispute is over Total’s use of an Italian contractor to build a 200m unit at its Lindesy plant. Irem, the contractor, has brought in its own workers from Italy and Portugal, who are sleeping in accommodation barges, rather than hiring local staff.
The protests reflect mounting tensions over employment, as the number of people out of work and claiming benefits in the UK rises towards 2m.
Union leaders denied that workers were taking action because the company had employed foreign labour, saying that the protests had been sparked by its refusal to consider hiring UK staff.
Derek Simpson, general secretary of Unite, the country’s biggest union, told BBC radio: “What’s happening at the Lindsey oil refinery is the same situation that’s occurring in two or three or even more construction sites across Britain.
“It’s not the question of foreign workers. It is the question that some of these companies… are saying they will exclusively debar UK workers; they will not consider UK workers under any circumstances.”
Mr. Simpson also said in a press statment issued later on Friday that Unite’s national executive, the governing body of the union, had called for a national protest in Westminster and that Unite was consulting its lawyers on the potential illegality of some employers’ practices in the engineering and construction industries.
A Unite official had earlier confirmed that the walk-outs were “unofficial action” and that the union could therefore not condone them.
Privately, however, union officials said that they understood the British workers’ frustration.
One said: “This is not about excluding migrant workers, but making sure there is a level playing field and that British workers get the same opportunities for jobs.”
Total told the BBC that Irem, which employs a specialist workforce, had won the contract to construct the new HDS-3 unit at the Lindsey plant, after a “fair” tendering process.