Brave new world of British workers: floating 'labor hostels'
Some immigrant workers are being housed on barges, prompting questions and resentment from locals, many of whom are out of work.
To anyone peering through a wire perimeter, it is nothing more than a tattered, oversized barge anchored at the windswept docklands on the edge of town.Skip to next paragraph
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To the dozens of Italian migrant workers who live onboard, it is home.
But some worry that this floating labor hostel, as well as at least two others in the north eastern English port of Grimsby, could be a harbinger of a future in which Europe's open borders allow the increasing use of external workers to undercut local and long-term employees.
Anger that jobs at a nearby oil refinery were being filled by the Italians caused mass protests earlier this year by British workers and a wave of sympathy strikes across the country.
Now, the same concerns are fueling labor unrest in other parts of Britain, where even prestige projects such as the Olympics risk being affected.
In late May, for example, hundreds of construction workers walked off sites around the country in protest against the hiring of 50 Polish workers by a contractor at a liquefied natural gas terminal in Wales.
The situation has further heightened concern among mainstream political parties, who lost ground to far-right political parties during Europewide elections in early June.
Workers separated from community
The recent arrival of the floating labor hostels has raised eyebrows in Britain, where workers – even immigrants – have traditionally been more integrated into local communities.
"It's hard to think of anywhere else in the world where this has been done," says Gregor Gall, a professor of industrial relations at the University of Hertfordshire, who had analyzed the role of the barges in Grimsby.
"You would have to consider places such as Southeast Asia, where workers live in factories and are not allowed out. Of course, the conditions are very different, but in some ways, this is the equivalent in a developed country."
The accommodation effectively prevents sections of the labor force from organizing, he adds, while the barge's residents, ferried to work each day in vans, remain unaware of the working conditions and pay of others.
Meantime, planning permission for another barge has been granted hundreds of miles to the south, where contractors and subcontractors building a new power station on the Isle of Grain in Kent plan to use it to house hundreds of Polish employees.
To date, the anger of British workers has been directed at firms such as the French-owned Total oil, which operates the oil refinery outside Grimsby, Britain's third largest.
Locals are suspicious
Amid the ever-deepening recession, resentment toward those on board the floating hostel simmers on the streets of the town, a once-thriving fishing port that suffered from severe unemployment even during Britain's economic boom years.