Striking oil workers are fighting EU rules
THE use of Italian contract workers at Lindsey oil refinery in Lincolnshire is the latest example of employers across Europe going on the offensive against organised labour and national collective bargaining.
Refinery owner French oil giant Total gave the £200 million contract to the Italian company IREM as it was the cheapest tender. As a result more than 300 of its workers are today being kept on barges berthed at the docks in nearby Grimsby and are being ferried to the refinery.
The company claims that the Italian workers are on the same wages. Even if this was true, sleeping on containers in the freezing seas on the Humber estuary is just one experience that constitutes a lower social wage for these workers.
The fact that British energy workers do not know the conditions these contractors are employed on is enough in itself to set alarm bells ringing. This process undermines the very idea of collective bargaining, a concept which is under attack in a number ways by employers and the European Union.
Total is exploiting EU law which demands the free movement of capital, goods, services and labour, a neo-liberal model which facilitates a race to the bottom in terms of wages and conditions.
This process began back in 1987 with Margaret Thatcher’s Single European Act, which Tory MP John Bercow later boasted was about imposing a Single Market to achieve the “Thatcherisation of Europe”.
This internal market was designed to slowly remove barriers to the free movement capital, goods, services and labour, the so-called ‘four freedoms’, until capital could move anywhere and any time regardless of the consequences.
Rather than liberate workers, it has enslaved them by turning people into commodities, with very few collective rights, to be exploited and dumped without regard to social models built up over generations in the member states.
We saw this process at work in the Irish Ferries dispute in 2006, when Irish seafarers were displaced by sweated Latvian and Polish labour being paid a third of the wages.
The Gate Gourmet strike of 2005 also saw low-paid Polish workers displace local staff, mainly British Asian women.
Four recent judgements by the European Court of Justice, known as Laval, Viking, Ruffert and Luxembourg, have also enshrined this race to the bottom in ECJ case law and gives huge new powers to employers to bring in contract labour anywhere within the EU.
The ECJ and the European Commission are effectively implementing a programme to narrow the scope for member states to preside over their different social models and labour markets in the context of foreign companies posting workers to their territory.
In the Luxembourg case, the ECJ does not even recognise Luxembourg's right to decide which national public policy provisions should apply to both national and foreign service providers on an equal footing.
This process is also being played out at Staythorpe power station near Newark, where employers in the energy sector are also refusing to employ local unionised labour.
French engineering group Alstom has been contracted by energy privateer RWE to build the power station and two companies, Montpressa and FMM, have since been subcontracted to carry out construction work.
It is clear that the the employers' response to the growing economic crisis is to exploit neoliberal EU rules on "free movement" and drive down wages, exclude organised labour and maintain their profits.
A stark illustration of this is the fact that the spontaneous strike action came a day after Shell reported the biggest annual profit in British corporate history of £21.9 billion, leading to renewed calls for a windfall tax on energy companies.
But the use of cheap foreign workers as a battering ram against organised labour is not a new concept.
In 1934, as European countries followed the United States into the Great Depression, French writer Antoine de St Exupéry described Polish miners expelled from French coalfields once they had fulfilled their usefulness as "half-human shadows, shunted from one end of Europe to the other by economic forces."
This is the European reality for more and more workers as Brussels imposes its increasingly discredited neoliberal economic model that treats labour like a tin of beans.
Even Environment Secretary Hilary Benn has said that angry energy workers were "entitled to an answer."
Yet while new Labour remains wedded to the creation of a pseudo-state called Europe, where democracy and workers' right only exist in the past tense, then more and more workers will be asking the same questions.