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.

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.

"They're foreigners, aren't they? They don't given anything back," says Karen Prescott, a lunchtime customer at a bar a short distance from one of the vessels.

Voicing a common sentiment, Ms. Prescott adds, "They don't put anything into the economy or spend anything here, so why should they be welcome?"

For its part, Total insists it does not discriminate against British workers and points to an independent adjudicator's report, which recognized the commitment of the company and of its Italian subcontractor toward ensuring fair and equal working conditions for everyone working on the project.

Trade unions hope to ward off xenophobia

While the protests are over for now, a trade-union organizer in Grimsby insisted that the dispute was far from settled, referring to pay differentials of as much as 35 percent between the British and non-British workers.

Bernard McCauley, of the Unite trade union, claimed that it was clear the Italians did not have the skills to do some of the required work, and that Britons were helping them to complete tasks.

"With the living arrangements, the companies have insisted on segregation. They don't believe in integrating the workforce. It's not a civilized environment," he added.

Outright xenophobia remains largely absent, and Far Right activists who attempted to infiltrate the protests earlier this year were promptly shown the door by trade-union stewards.

Labor trouble with the 2012 Olympics?

However, an East London stronghold of the extreme right-wing British National Party (BNP) is much closer to the location of the latest labor-relations flash point, and a potentially a massive political hot potato – the London 2012 Olympics site.

In May, workers travelled from Grimsby to London to join demonstrations with hundreds of others demanding that more British employees be given jobs constructing Olympic facilities and infrastructure.

Up to 70 percent of the workforce laying the ground for the Olympics are British or Irish, according to the authorities tasked with delivering the Games.

Trade-union activists insist their problem is not with foreign labor, but the use of agencies that allow contractors to exploit migrant labor by paying lower wages.

Sensitivities about the role of foreign workers have meanwhile been heightened by research showing that they are faring better than their British counterparts when it comes to holding on to their jobs during the recession.

Sarah Mulvey of the Institute for Public Policy Research, a think tank, said a main reason foreign-born workers were doing better was that the immigration system was geared to selecting the most employable people, who tended to work in sectors where there were labor shortages.

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