Unite polls members over action to stop employers importing cut-price labour
More than 20,000 construction staff are to be balloted on industrial action by trade union leaders in an escalation of the row over the use of foreign workers.
Unite, the country's largest union, will start organising a poll of members at power stations and petrochemical sites tomorrow after a breakdown in talks with the Engineering Construction Industry Association.
Among the energy projects that could be hit by strikes are the South Hook liquefied natural gas terminal in Pembrokeshire, the Lindsey oil hub in Lincolnshire and the Stanlow refinery on Merseyside.
The bitter and growing argument over the use of foreign labour has led to a spate of unofficial strikes and walkouts as the recession produces increased fears about job security. The ballot shows unions are now putting their formal stamp on the dispute.
"Construction employers have rejected reasonable and just demands which would have delivered long-term stability and fairness in an industry that has been plagued by instability and numerous injustices," said Unite's national officer Tom Hardacre. "We now have no other choice but to ballot our members for official industrial action. A yes vote will disrupt many of the UK's major construction projects and petrochemical sites."
Unite is anxious not to be seen to be stoking up any racial tensions and denies the dispute is specifically about the use of foreign staff. It is merely an attempt to ensure fair play for everyone, regardless of nationality, the union says. Employers have claimed they have turned to Poles or other European staff only where they have been unable to hire locally.
Unite and the GMB union are convinced that many employers are deliberately taking advantage of recent European court judgments that appear to allow workers from across the European Union to be hired at different rates. Unite asked the Engineering Construction Industry Association to amend the national agreement to ensure equalisation of pay and benefits between local and foreign workers, but the two sides failed to agree.
The employers were not available for comment today, while the unions were pressing home their arguments. "The unions have set out to introduce a posted workers directive for the construction industry on the basis one has not been implemented properly in the UK," Hardacre said. "Instead employers are attempting to dilute a national agreement and turn it into a code of practice. With so much bad practice in the industry this approach from the employers beggars belief."
The failed attempt at national talks follows unofficial strike action last month by workers in GMB and Unite against the Dutch-based employer Hertel over the use of 40 Polish workers at South Hook, the Milford Haven oil terminal owned by ExxonMobil and Total of France.
Industrial action quickly spread to Aberthaw power station in the Vale of Glamorgan, then Fiddlers Ferry power station near Widnes in Cheshire and three other energy plants. Action was also planned at the Sellafield nuclear complex in Cumbria.
The conflict previously flared in January when foreign workers were brought in to work on the Lindsey oil terminal, which is also controlled by Total of France.
Paul Kenny, general secretary of the GMB, said at the time that though the South Hook dispute was resolved when Hertel withdrew the Polish contingent, the wider problem of undercutting national deals had not disappeared.
"Although we have been able to settle the dispute at Lindsey and South Hook, the problem has not gone away," he said. "We fear it will all flare up again because there are two jockeys on the horse."
There was no specific allegation at South Hook that the Poles were being paid less than local workers, just an accusation that local labour was being ignored. Hertel had always denied this, saying it had been unable to find qualified locals when it was first recruiting but has since been able to do so.
Source: The Guardian