British PM condemns walkouts

Sunday, February 1, 2009

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has condemned the workers who staged mass walkout across the country on Friday.

File photo of Gordon Brown
Image: Andy Mettler, WEF.

Speaking to the BBC from the World Economic Forum in the Swiss skiing resort of Davos, he said that the walkouts were "not the right thing to do". Workers on industrial sites in Wales, Scotland, Cheshire, Hampshire and Teesside had left their plants and staged protests outside in sympathy with staff at Lindsey Oil Refinery in Lincolnshire, after French owner Total had given a contract to an Italian firm. The firm brought 300 Italian and Portuguese staff into the plant.

Brown had made a speech in 2007 where he called for "British jobs for British workers". He explained to the BBC's Politics Show that "when I talked about British jobs, I was taking about giving people in Britain the skills, so that they have the ability to get jobs which were at present going to people from abroad". The government says that European Union (EU) law makes it impossible for them to provide British jobs for British workers in the EU common market. Earlier, the Secretary of State for Health, Alan Johnson, told the BBC that recent European Court of Justice judgments had undermined employment rights but that the government would be pushing the EU to take action if it finds that the foreign workers are 'undercutting' UK citizens. He described the walkouts as "unhelpful", but said he understood the anger over EU workers coming to the UK "on worse terms and conditions to actually get jobs in front of British workers on the basis of dumbing down the terms and conditions."

The walkouts were also condemned by the opposition Conservative Party. Foreign affairs spokesman William Hague said that "strikes are never the way forward" and that his party strongly supported the free market in labour in the EU. He said that it was "so unbelievably ridiculous and silly" for Brown to have made the promise on British jobs in the first place.

The government has asked the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) to examine the circumstances behind the strikes and see if British workers are being unlawfully excluded, as the GMB union has claimed.

Secondary or sympathetic industrial action has been illegal in the UK since the 1980s. However, the penalties apply only to unions organizing secondary action and not to individual workers walking out.