26th Feb 2024

EU defends free movement of labour in face of UK workers protests

The EU on Wednesday (20 May) warned against the negative effects of "closed borders" on jobs, following two days of protests by British oil refineries' employees against the use of foreign labour.

The two-day British strikes involved thousands of workers at seven refineries angered by proposals to employ dozens of foreign workers, mainly from central and eastern European member states, instead of local ones, the BBC writes.

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Similar protests had taken place in February, when workers at the Lindsey oil refinery in north-eastern England protested plans to award a contract to an Italian-based firm using its own Italian and Portuguese workers. The protest later spread to a nuclear plant in the north-west of England as well.

The European Commission insisted on the benefits of free movement of workers and warned against the negative effects of "closing borders."

"We think that free movement of workers benefits both the workers and the host country," commission spokeswoman for employment Katharina Von Schnurbein told the BBC.

"Certainly closing borders doesn't create any jobs. You have to see also that it works both ways: British people also benefit from working abroad," she added.

But after talks with trade union officials on Wednesday, Hertel UK, the contractor at the South Hook Liquefied Natural Gas Terminal in Milford Haven when the strikes started, said it agreed to replace the foreign workers with local ones.

"Following discussions today we have agreed to withdraw immediately all 40 non-UK workers and will be looking to directly employ suitably skilled UK workers. We trust this will bring the unofficial strike action to an end and hope staff will agree to return to work today," Hertel's managing director David Fitzsimons said last night, the Financial Times reported.

"Our policy is always to recruit local and UK people where they are available and have the right skills and qualifications, although using the original, non-UK workforce employed by our subcontractor did not contravene national agreements negotiated with the relevant trade bodies," he added.

Number of eastern European workers dropping

Meanwhile, figures published by the British Office for National Statistics on Wednesday showed an increasing number of eastern European workers are leaving Britain.

It said that the number of Poles – who comprise nearly 60 percent of all eastern Europeans working in the UK – registering in the UK between January and March this year was almost three times lower compared to the same period last year (12,480 registrations in January – March this year compared to 32,365 last year).

The ONS also found that the total number of east Europeans given the right to work in Britain fell by 36 percent to 133,000 by the end of March compared to the year ending in March 2008.

Additionally, overall net immigration went down to 147,000 — after reaching over 200,000 in 2005, the Times writes.

"After years of rising net migration into the UK, the trend is going into reverse," the paper quoted a spokesman for the Institute for Public Policy Research as saying.

"It's striking that the great influx of Eastern Europeans of the last five years is tailing off dramatically."


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