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Deal reached over 'British jobs' strike

  • Story Highlights
  • Deal agreed to end strike over non-UK labor at British oil refinery
  • Arbitration service says deal involves offering 101 new jobs to British workers
  • Member of European Parliament warns deal might break EU labor law
  • Protests sparked by Total awarding project to Italian firm employing Italians
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- British union leaders will recommend Thursday ending an unofficial strike that has dragged on more than a week at the country's third-largest oil refinery, the arbitrator in the dispute announced Wednesday.

A policeman watches protesters at Lindsay during a heavy snowfall Tuesday.

Protesters at the Lindsay Oil Refinery are opposed to plans to employ non-British workers at the plant.

Workers walked off the job January 28 to protest the hiring of hundreds of foreign workers for a construction project at the Lindsey oil refinery in eastern England.

Their action has prompted similar "wildcat" strikes, unsanctioned by national unions, at other sites across the country.

The compromise will involve opening 101 new jobs to British workers, the arbitration service ACAS said in a written statement.

Local union leaders had earlier told demonstrators they were near their goal of being offered half the jobs involved in one of the latest subcontracts connected to the construction project -- 102 new jobs for a minimum of nine weeks.

"If you can't be happy with that, you can't be happy with anything," a local union official said at a demonstration televised by Britain's Sky News. The union leader did not identify himself.

The French-based oil company Total, which owns the plant, confirmed a deal was in the cards.

"Union officials will present details of the agreement to the workforce at 7:30 a.m. (2:30 a.m. ET Thursday) and recommend a return to work," Total said in a release.

Stephen Hughes, a Labour legislator in the European Parliament, warned that the reported compromise could itself run afoul of European labor law, opening the way for foreign workers who lose out to British labor to claim they were being discriminated against on the basis of nationality.

Union leaders have been meeting over three days with Total, Jacobs, the main site contractor, and IREM, the Italian firm hired to carry out the project, in talks moderated by ACAS. They had already rejected one proposal, a union official told CNN.

Union leaders accuse Total of discriminating against British workers by subcontracting with IREM, which has hired workers from Italy and Portugal. Total rejects the allegation.

Overall, the construction project has employed, directly or indirectly, 600 to 1,000 workers for about 18 months, Total said.

"It has never been, and never will be, the policy of Total to discriminate against British companies or British workers. We have been a major local employer for 40 years and the majority of our 500 permanent staff are local," the company said in a statement released Monday.

It said IREM had won the sub-contract through a fair and legal bidding process.

ACAS will investigate the bidding process and report within weeks, it said Wednesday.

Hundreds of workers at British power plants and refineries have been walking off the job in unofficial "wildcat" strikes since the Lindsey workers put down their tools last Wednesday.

Spontaneous strikes took place Tuesday in every corner of the country: at the Stanlow oil refinery in western England, Drax power station in the northeast, Petroplus Coryton Refinery in the southeast and Longannet power station in Scotland.

A total of nearly 1,000 workers were off the job at the three English locations. Scottish Power did not specify how many workers were on strike.

Representatives of all four plants said contractors, not full-time staff, had walked off the job, and all said operations were not affected.

But resolving the Lindsey strike may not be the end of the matter. Union leaders say the strike there is only a reflection of problems with the way Britain implements European Union employment directives.

Unite, one of the UK's largest unions, called last week for a national protest in London. The country's main labor groups have all issued statements in support of the striking workers.

"The government is failing to grasp the fundamental issues. The problem is not workers from other European countries working in the UK, nor is it about foreign contractors winning contracts in the UK. The problem is that employers are excluding UK workers from even applying for work on these contracts," Unite General Secretary Derek Simpson said Tuesday.

"No European worker should be barred from applying for a British job and absolutely no British worker should be barred from applying for a British job."

The dispute has reverberated up to the highest levels of government, with the prime minister and the leader of the opposition trading barbs about it in Parliament on Wednesday.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he hoped workers would accept the ACAS-moderated deal despite their "reservations."

Brown also rejected accusations by Conservative leader David Cameron that his use of the slogan "British jobs for British workers" in a 2007 speech had pandered to "protectionist fears."

"Can anybody here say that they don't want British workers to get jobs in our country?" Brown retorted in the House of Commons.

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