Workers at an oil refinery in Britain voted on Thursday to end their walkout over foreign labor, a dispute that sparked wildcat strikes across the country.
But even as staff at the Lindsey plant in eastern England agreed unanimously to return to work, unions warned of more disputes to come over foreign contract workers at a time of rising unemployment amid the global slowdown.
UK Business Secretary Peter Mandelson welcomed the end of the strike, but renewed his warning against economic protectionism, saying that in the long run it would only harm British interests.
More than 300 British workers at the refinery, owned by French oil giant Total, agreed to accept a deal under which they were offered about half the jobs on a disputed contract.
Workers argued they were being barred from applying for jobs on a contract awarded to an Italian company that wanted to use its own Italian and Portuguese staff.
Under the compromise deal, British workers will take up 102 of the 198 new jobs on the project.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown had appealed to the workers to accept the deal to defuse an acrimonious row that sparked unofficial strikes last week at more than 20 oil and gas facilities and the Sellafield nuclear plant.
Derek Simpson, joint leader of the Unite union, said the compromise was “a good deal which establishes the principle of fair access for UK workers on British construction projects.”
“We now expect other companies in the construction industry to level the playing field for UK workers,” he said.
Speaking to business leaders on Thursday evening, Mandelson welcomed the resolution but warned against the “temptation to retreat into economic protectionism or economic nationalism” as a response to the downturn.
The former EU trade commissioner said: “British manufacturing is a global industry with everything to lose from a rise in global protectionism.”
Phil Whitehurst, a member of the negotiating committee for the GMB union, predicted more protests would soon flare up at other sites over the use of foreign labor.
“It was an excellent decision [at the Lindsey plant]. We have now got the chance to go back to work but the fight does not stop here,” he said. “We have got the MPs worried. I think we have got Gordon Brown worried. I don’t think they know how to deal with us. We are not trying to bring the government down, we’re just trying to get them to listen.”
Total said it was delighted that work could resume on the £200 million (US$290 million) project to expand the refinery.
The company said: “We would like to highlight again that we have not, and will not, discriminate against British companies and British workers.”
In Portugal, a group of 40 Portuguese workers at the Lindsey site returned home “for security reasons” amid the heated protests by the British staff, their employer said.
Luis Bento, a spokesman for recruitment firm Semi-sul, told Correio da Manha newspaper: “The Portuguese [workers] returned for security reasons. But we intend to send them back,”
Cesar Rodrigues, one of those forced to return, denounced the UK as racist in comments to reporters at Lisbon airport.
“I worked for several years in the Netherlands and in Germany, often among skinheads, but I never encountered racism, in contrast to my experience in Britain where I could not last for more than a week,” he said.