Strikes against foreigners off target: union claims groundless

The recruitment of foreign workers by Total abided to law and national agreements according to arbitrator ACAS  17 February 2009

No evidence was found by Acas, the UK employment relations service, that Total, Jacobs Engineering or IREM have broken the law with regard to the use of posted workers or entered into unlawful recruitment practices.

Claims made by Unions that foreign workers had an unfair advantage over British counterparts at the Lindsey Oil Refinery have therefore been dismissed.

Acas had been asked to mediate between Total managers and union leaders, after thousands of British workers shook the country with waves of wildcat strikes, ignited by the hire of hundreds of Italian and Portuguese labourers by Irem, an Italian subcontractor, at the giant Lindsey Oil Refinery in North Lincolnshire.

Protesters at sites around the UK displayed posters with the Prime Minister’s pledge of "British jobs for British workers" and used the specific instance to vent their rage against competition with European and foreigner workers.

Unite and GMB unions backed protesters claiming that Britons were not given any opportunity to apply for the posts and added details, without any evidence, such as Italian and Portuguese worker not receiving paid tea breaks and required changing into protective gear in their own time.

The Acas report, requested by the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR), states that Total, a French company, was within its rights under the European Union’s Posted Workers’ Directive to subcontract the building of a sulphurisation facility to an Italian company that used its own permanent Italian workforce. It says that Total had voluntarily agreed to abide by a national agreement between the construction industry and the unions, and there was no evidence to suggest they had broken it.

The report finds that, far from surrendering the tea break, the Italians had asked to add it to their midday lunch break, replicating the traditional continental working model. Overall they would have the same amount of rest time as British workers.

The contracts signed by Total and the Italian subcontractor show that Italian and Portuguese workers are not being paid less than British contractors, as many in the picket lines claimed. John Taylor, chief executive of Acas, commented: “While the report shows no evidence of the law being broken there is a source of tension around the Posted Workers’ Directive and its application to construction work and the industrial relations system. These issues have been highlighted by the recession.”

Acas welcomed the Government’s announcement of a review into work practices and competitiveness in Britain’s construction workers by the Business Department.

Federica Gaida

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