Don’t blame the workers at Lindsey oil refinery
There has been a lot of coverage for the dispute at Lindsey Oil Refinery in Lincolnshire, and the websites of the relevant unions (GMB and Unite) have covered their positions – our comment is here. Much of the media coverage has reported wildly different ‘facts’ about the numbers of workers involved, terms and conditions, contract conditions and so on, suggesting if nothing else a lack of openness, which is of course one of the reasons why passions have run high. But the main reason so much attention has focused on a specific dispute is because there are much much bigger issues involved. Johann Hari has begun teasing these out in his latest column in the Independent, but he makes the mistake of blaming the workers involved for other people’s actions.
Johann is right that the real culprits are the people who caused the recession in the first place, but he is wrong to say that the workers are putting the blame on the Italian and Portuguese workers who have secured the jobs. What the workers (and their unions) are demanding is the chance to apply for the jobs on offer, which is a rather more limited issue. They are definitely not saying that workers from outside the UK should not have an equal chance to do the same. As things stand, an Italian living in Lincolnshire would have no more chance than someone born there to get a job on this contract.
And Johann is also right to identify the National Minimum Wage as a key bulwark against undercutting and exploitation. It has provided a floor that prevents wages falling to the €1 an hour that some migrants have been paid in Germany, which has no national minimum wage. But the NMW alone will not do the job – that is why British unions fought the UK Government so tenaciously for a Temporary Agency Workers Directive, and why we are now campaigning for an improved Posted Workers Directive.
The wider concerns are about the freedom that employers have to decide wage rates, terms and conditions, and who gets jobs and who doesn’t, regardless of local circumstances. Recent European Court judgments have elevated employers’ rights over workers’ rights and therefore upset the balance that the European Social Model is designed to provide. That is why the ETUC is calling for a Social Progress Protocol to rebalance the relationship between capital and labour – needed more than ever now we are in a recession and the economic balance of power is swinging so far in favour of those employers able to offer the few new jobs that are available.
But don’t blame the workers in Lincolnshire or elsewhere who are only asking for the chance to apply for a job, and who have responded to the approach of the BNP by telling them to get lost, because what the workers are calling for – equal opportunities – is the exact opposite of what racist politicians offer.
If people DO want to echo Johann’s call to confront the real culprits and advance much broader solutions to our current crisis, they can come to London on Saturday 28 March – just before the G20 Leaders Summit – to demonstrate with unions and development, green and faith groups under the heading Put People First: Jobs, Justice and Climate.
I’ve just seen an even more egregious case of “blaming the workers” in the Telegraph of all places (don’t worry, the underlying reason for the piece was probably just to attack the BBC, not defend the workers!) But unblike Johann Hari who was just mis-directing fire, this is an example of actually making out that the workers at Lindsey (one was used to stand for all the others) were actual racists when they clearly weren’t, by editing a quote for the ten o’clock news – the full quote appeared in a Paul Mason piece on Newsnight, showing that the worker was making a completely different point.