Tuesday, 3 February 2009

The energy strikes

Currently, maintenance and construction workers at many power stations throughout the UK are on strike over the use of foreign labour. The BBC has coverage in several places, including a good background Q&A.

By nature, I really do not like wildcat sympathy strikes; I never have, and never will. They do not allow employers to react, and can punish one employer for the actions of another. However, in this case, whilst I disagree with the strikers' actions, I have some sympathy with their cause.

One comment was made on BBC Radio 5 a few days ago that does not seem to have gained much currency, but which may be important. That is: if non-English speakers are employed on contracts, it is very hard to get English speakers working with them. The reason is simple: communication.

Likewise, it could be hard for someone speaking only, say, Spanish, to work in a team of English speakers. Whilst this may not be important for jobs such as fruit picking, the construction industry may be a different matter. What language would safety warnings be in? How easy is it to spread safety-critical messages from one person to another? Could health and safety be a limiting factor to the free movement of workers within the Union?

Construction is one of the more dangerous jobs that someone can do. Moving machinery, deep holes, tall structures; they all are potentially dangerous. Communications between workers is vital, and therefore mixed teams may not necessarily be safe.

The truth in this particular strike may never be known; it will be wrapped up in a veil of secretive contractual agreements between the various contractors and subcontractors. Unless this veil can be taken down, all we have is rumour and supposition.

One thing is for sure: Brown's 2007 "British jobs for British workers" quote has spectacularly backfired. They were meaningless words that he should have known were unenforcible.

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