Hundreds of workers walked out of the Lindsey Oil Refinery in North Lincolnshire when the owner, Total, awarded a £200m contract to an Italian subcontractor, IREM. Over the last three days, “Sympathy strikes” spread across the country – in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Workers fear that they may become victims of rising unemployment in the UK.

A few years ago when the economy was thriving this would not have happened – but then the economy is not thriving now. During a period of high unemployment, the sight of foreign workers ‘taking British jobs’ is proving to be unacceptable, especially when they believe that qualified unemployed UK contractors are available. The workers are angry that Gordon Brown is not keeping a promise that he made at the Labour Party conference of providing “British jobs for British workers.”

Speaking from the World Economic Conference in Davos, Brown chastises that “Wildcat strikes are not defensible.” While he sympathizes with local workers, he emphasized that “we need people with the skills, developed in this country.”

So why was the business contract awarded to a foreign firm in the first place? Is this a case of relatively skilled versus unskilled labor, like Brown implied? Or is it just a matter of cheaper labor overseas? There is no way of knowing without looking at the business contract (which is confidential), but Total claims that they are paying the Italian workers the same as local workers.

The government has began an investigation into whether Total has illegally withheld jobs from British workers. The workers’ emotions are running high and some believe that this is a prelude to social unrest. Yet, students of international economics know that the mobility of labor across borders from a country with comparative advantage to one without, is in theory, beneficial to both countries. “Protectionism would be a sure-fire way of turning recession into depression.” Lord Mandelson could be right. Now it’s just a matter of convincing unemployed British workers of that.

Written by Florence Au