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Foreign workers: no problem when they are cheap labour!


A series of wildcat strikes in Britain against the use of foreign workers has drawn an angry reaction in Italy.

Thousands of workers at more than a dozen oil refineries, gas terminals and power stations in Britain staged a series of illegal walkouts on Friday in sympathy with a protest at a Total refinery in Lincolnshire. The protests were triggered by the award of a contract to IREM, an Italian engineering company, which the strikers claim intends to bring in its own staff from Portugal and Italy.

The centre-right coalition government of Silvio Berlusconi, prime minister, has kept largely silent on the issue, possibly fearing that forceful public intervention could trigger a damaging backlash.

Roberto Calderoli, a minister from the rightwing Northern League with a reputation for taking a tough line against immigrants, warned: “The English protests are an alarm bell, something that risks happening in all Europe.”

Sicily’s conservative governor, Raffaele Lombardo, called for possible retaliation against UK interests. He was quoted as saying that, if reports were confirmed of “xenophobic hate” directed against Sicilian workers in the UK, then he would not hesitate to break off negotiations with Shell over the proposed construction of a natural gas plant in Sicily.

Since Shell is in a consortium with Erg, Italy’s largest independent refiner, Mr Lombardo’s threats would seem to be mostly rhetoric.

Mr Berlusconi’s coalition swept the centre-left from power last April by appealing to workers with protectionist-sounding rhetoric – including a pledge to keep loss-making Alitalia in Italian hands – and xenophobic messages in terms of immigration and security.

As a billionaire entrepreneur, however, Mr Berlusconi has been sensitive to the needs of Italian industrialists for cheap foreign labour at the cost of domestic jobs. In recent years Italy has also gone through the shocks of globalisation, with historic towns such as Prato, for example, seeing their textile industry taken over by Chinese entrepreneurs and workers.

At the same time Mr Berlusconi has indulged those who would stoke anti-foreign sentiment on the issue of law and order.

Il Giornale, a daily newspaper owned and controlled by the Berlusconi family, on Sunday ran the front-page headline: “The Romanians are raping again! And we are letting them free!” The article followed up on two highly publicised cases of rape blamed on Romanian immigrants, while also using the issue to press the government’s attempts to reform the judiciary.

On newspaper comment pages on Sunday, Italians expressed some sympathy for the plight of British workers but also asked what had happened to the UK’s vaunted calls for free markets and globalisation. They blamed the UK media for fuelling hysteria and asked why the Italian government was so silent.

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