LEADING ARTICLE What the oil refinery protesters are demanding is not an option
You could hardly wish for a more graphic illustration of the pluses and minuses of globalisation, and here it is in our own backyard. The French multinational Total is building a new unit for the Lindsey oil refinery in Lincolnshire, and employing Italian and Portuguese workers to help to build it.
Trade unions argue that unemployed workers living locally had the skills and should have had the chance to compete for the jobs. A protest strike began four days ago and yesterday spread across the country. The Prime Minister's party conference call for the creation of "British jobs for British workers" was a constant, and malign, refrain.
In theory, the rights and wrongs are clear. In setting up the refinery, Total was a welcome investor, providing employment in a part of the country where it was needed. If, as it appears, the construction contract was put out to tender and won fair and square by an Italian company - which brings its own workforce as part of the deal - this is quite legal. Nor does there seem to be any undercutting of British workers' wages.
Even if they were not being paid the same as British workers, however, it would be hard to fault the arrangements. Britain is part of the single European market. It opened up its labour market to mobile European Union labour when required to do so, and more generously than many other EU countries. Restrictions still apply to workers from Romania and Bulgaria, but all other EU citizens may work here - whether they come under their own steam or, as in this case, as part of a contracted workforce.
You can debate the Government's motives here: was our open labour market primarily a matter of legality and fairness, or was it also an opportunity to keep tax revenues up and inflation down? Whatever the thinking, the result was that hundreds of thousands of EU workers found work in Britain - to our benefit, and their own.
The reality, however, is more complicated than the principle. There was always a downside to the free movement of labour, in the form of depressed wages in some sectors and fewer vacant jobs. So long as those who lost out were mainly unskilled workers, unwilling or unequipped to fill vacancies, public awareness and sympathy were limited. But with the downturn - which only threatens to become worse - skilled …