Crise: British jobs for British workers!

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Protesters at the Lindsey oil refinery in North Lincolnshire. Photograph: Anna Gowthorpe/PA

Officials from government departments, unions, employers and the mediation service Acas have been in discussions after a series of wildcat strikes across the country on Friday.

The protests were prompted by a decision to bring in hundreds of Italian and Portuguese contractors to work on a new £200m plant at the Lindsey oil refinery, in North Lincolnshire. Unions claim Britons were not given any opportunity to apply for the posts.

The health secretary, Alan Johnson, a former trade union leader, said wildcat strikes were unhelpful but he understood the anger. He said free movement of labour was fundamental to the EU, but suggested European court judgments could have « distorted » the rules.

« 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 understand the anger about that, » Johnson told the BBC’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. »

Yesterday, the business secretary, Lord Mandelson, promised the government would « make sure that both domestic UK law and European rules are being applied properly and fairly.

« But it would be a huge mistake to retreat from a policy where within the rules, UK companies can operate in Europe and European companies can operate here, » Mandelson said. « Protectionism would be a sure-fire way of turning recession into depression. »

The government’s stance was given short shrift by unions. Paul Kenny, general secretary of the GMB, 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. What is happening here would be illegal under UK domestic law. »

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