The European Commission yesterday (2 February) “strongly backed” UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown in condemning a wave of strikes in Britain over the use of foreign workers, staged across a dozen oil refineries, gas terminals and power stations.
The EU executive insisted that the single market represents a unique advantage to all EU member states. “We cannot create new jobs by closing markets,” said Commission spokesman Johannes Laitenberger. “We understand the UK workers’ fears, but discrimating against workers of other EU nations is not the solution,” he added, stressing that the social chapter of the EU’s recovery plan allows governements to find ways to tackle social challenges.
Up to 900 workers at a nuclear processing plant walked out on Monday, as protests spread across Britain against the use of Portuguese and Italian workers on the sites.
The industrial action, which has so far mostly affected power and energy plants to the east and northwest of the country, appears to be spreading, with Internet forums encouraging sympathy strikes across the UK.
The wildcat strikes reflect growing unease as Britain’s economy moves deeper into recession and unemployment edges higher: almost two million Britons are now jobless, with the unemployment rate at over six percent and rising.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown on Sunday condemned the nationwide strikes. “That’s not the right thing to do,” Brown told BBC television. “It’s not defensible.” The UK government has asked an independent mediator to look into whether skilled British workers were unfairly debarred from contract work at a refinery in eastern England owned by France’s Total.
Meanwhile, social unrest is spreading across Europe, fuelled by a worsening economic downturn. Last week, French workers called for more pay and job security, while Greek farmers set up roadblocks, demanding compensation for low prices (EURACTIV 29/01/2009)
The strikes are fuelling resentment against companies that use European workers who, under EU law, are free to work across much of the continent and often accept lower pay than British staff. Mainstream politicians fear far-right groups such as the British National Party will use the protests to their advantage.
PES President Poul Nyrup Rasmussen warned yesterday that workers would turn against the European Union unless it shows that it is on the side of jobs and workers rights.
“The strikes in the UK are just the latest example of growing frustration and fear among workers. Workers are beginning to question freedom of movement because the European Commission has allowed it to be used to undermine wages and working conditions. The European Commission has done nothing to stop freedom of movement of workers from being exploited to drive down wages, despite repeated warnings. Now they are seeing the results,” Rasmussen said.
The PES manifesto for the EU elections suggests that there should be a social progress clause in every piece of European legislation. It wants to draw up a European pact on wages, guaranteeing equal pay for equal work and setting out the need for decent minimum wages in all EU member states, which would be agreed either by law or through collective bargaining and would apply both to citizens and migrant workers.