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Talks resume to tackle oil workers' wild cat strikes over use of foreign labour

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On the seventh day of unofficial strikes at oil refineries across the country over the use of foreign contractors, talks have resumed to attempt to find a solution to the problem.

The ‘wild cat' strikes began at the Lindsey oil refinery in Lincolnshire, owned by French company Total, on Wednesday, spreading across the country over the weekend as oil workers in Warrington, Cheshire, Grangemouth, Milfordhaven, Pembrokeshire and County Antrim downed tools in sympathy. This was followed yesterday by employee action at nuclear plants Sellafield and Heysham.

The strikes started after an Italian firm, IREM, won a £200-million contract at the Lincolnshire plant, bringing in workers from Italy and Portugal. Although Total insists this will not result in discrimination or direct redundancies of employees, those on strike believe jobs in the plant should go to local, unemployed skilled workers.

Mediation service Acas is meeting Total managers, union representatives and contractor Jacobs, in Grimsby, to devise a solution to the unrest.

But Derek Simpson, joint leader of trade union Unite, believes the Government needs to take action.

He said: "The Government is failing to grasp the important issues. The problem is not workers from other European countries working in the UK, nor is it about foreign contractors winning contracts in the UK. The problem is employers are excluding UK workers from even applying for work on these contracts.

"The flexible labour market is a one-way street that only benefits the employers. We are now seeing the backlash as the recession bites. The Government must ensure employers do not raise the barriers to UK- based labour applying for work.

Although John Philpott, chief economist at the CIPD, thinks the strikes are unjustified, he says rules about free movement of labour in the European Union must be made clear to avoid labour wars for scarce jobs during recession.

He added: "Although Total and its Italian subcontractor have behaved properly within the law - which undermines justification for either the initial or related unofficial strikes currently under way - in today's uncertain economic conditions employers of migrant workers must be absolutely transparent when it comes to the reasons for their decisions and the broad terms and conditions of employment they offer."