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Workers looks at Brown's apparent pledge on jobs for Britain. How does it fit in with the free movement of labour – and what attitude should British workers take?

British jobs for British workers?


When Gordon Brown, looking for a good sound bite in the run-up to his "election" as prime minister, came up with "British jobs for British workers" it caused a stir. It's still causing a stir, and in some strange places, too.

It's a reflection of how odd things are in this country that such a statement should be controversial. Back in the days before Britain joined the European Union (more exactly its forerunner, the European Economic Community), this was indeed the policy of all governments: employers wishing to hire people without UK citizenship or residency had to demonstrate that they could not find anyone suitable without going abroad for their labour.

It's controversial now, though, and for two distinct reasons. First, the idea that there are things called "British jobs" that should go to British workers is illegal. Under the various treaties of the European Union, there is supposed to be free movement of labour within the EU: so "British jobs for European workers" is about as far as Brown is legally able to go.

The only variation on this allowed by the European Union is the pace at which workers from the new EU members in Central and Eastern Europe – the so-called "accession states" – can be part of this migration of labour. Under Labour, Britain has been the first to welcome workers from Poland, Lithuania, and so on.

It was the illegality of what Brown appeared to be saying that the Conservative Party picked up immediately. Instead of criticising the policy of free movement of labour, it sniped at Brown over the illegality, in typical "oppositionist" mode.

Read his lips
Brown, of course, may be dictatorial and reactionary, but he is not stupid. Look at what he actually said: "It is time to train British workers for the British jobs that will be available over the coming few years and to make sure that people who are inactive and unemployed are able to get the new jobs on offer in our country."

Make of that what you will, and the spin doctors did. Hence "British jobs for British workers". But look closely and you can see Brown was not saying that at all. He was saying, in so many words, "British workers lack skills and training [after 10 years of Labour!] and without it they'll stay out of work." The last thing he was saying was that any jobs would actually be reserved for British workers.

His statement drew criticism from another quarter. There are those in the labour movement, even employed by trade unions, who have become nervous or downright hostile to the word "British", especially when it is used twice in a sentence. They think that as a word it is inherently racist or at best "nationalistic" (which to them is more or less the same thing).

These people look at the slogan "British jobs for British workers" and call it "offensive" and "ridiculous". Or they say the government should avoid "the mantra 'British jobs for British workers' because it could play into the hands of racists and bigots" (Paul Kenny, General Secretary, GMB, at the Labour Party Conference, 25 September).

But what, exactly, is "offensive" or "ridiculous" about the slogan? And would it play into the hands of racists and bigots? Or, on the contrary, will refusing to face facts play into those hands?

Kenny went on to say, "I know that's not intended, but it is easy to cross the line." If any statement is ridiculous and offensive, it's surely that. The line between defending Britain and racism and bigotry is not easy to cross. There's no fuzzy no-man's-land. There's a very clear line, and everyone can see it.

Is it the word "British" these people object to? If it's offensive to talk about British jobs for British workers, is it offensive, ridiculous, or playing into the hands of racists and bigots to talk about, say, jobs in North Wales for the unemployed of the area? Or jobs in former mining communities for the unemployed in those communities? Or to demand jobs for our children, who are by definition British? (See "The Olympics: Coming last")

The odd thing is that nowhere else in Europe, perhaps in the world, is it controversial to suggest that the priority of a government should be the employment of its own citizens, rather than those of another country.

Cadbury: not even government fudge, just silence

There has been not a peep out of Gordon Brown or any of his ministers at the announcement by Cadbury that it is to close the former Fry's factory in Keynsham, between Bristol and Bath, and move production to Poland and Bournville, Birmingham, with 500 jobs to go at Keynsham and a further 200 at Bournville – nearly half the British workforce. Ninety-eight per cent of the factory's output is sold in Britain.

But workers in Britain and Poland have made their feelings clear. In November Cadbury workers from all the British plants voted by a huge majority to ballot for a strike if necessary over the plans – a four-to-one majority with a ballot return of 95 per cent of the workforce.

Cadbury employs nearly 1,6000 workers in four plants at Keynsham, Bournville, Chirk in North Wales and Marlbrook in Herefordshire. Support is solid across all the four plants, which have mounted a coordinated campaign to stop the Kenysham closure.

Meanwhile, in Poland, Dariusz Skoriek, head of Solidarity's national food section, and Marek Wytrykowski, both from the Cadbury-owned Wedel factory in Warsaw, have pledged their support, according to a report on the Unite T&G website.

"We can be relied upon to work closely with Keynsham and all other UK sites," they said. "We support the campaign against Cadbury taking part in a race to the bottom for cheap labour. We are not happy to take work from the UK and we send our best wishes."

Cadbury's, reports the T&G, currently has three sites in Poland: Wedel, a chocolate factory in Warsaw, employs 600 production workers and 400 agency staff earning £3 an hour; Wraclaw in the Bielany area of the city, a special economic area, has 200 production workers earning £3 an hour and 300 agency workers on £2.50; plus a gum factory.

The company plans to move Keynsham production to a new non-union factory it is building at a fourth site ,Skarbimierz, an old military site of about 250 acres, and also in a special economic zone.

Poland's special economic zones, according to a government website, are places that are "subject to special treatment and tax exemptions where an entrepreneur can establish a business on a specially prepared site and run it without paying income tax". Companies in the zones are also exempted from property tax.

You might think that state aid like this would be illegal under European Union competition rules – but the EU has given its blessing to the scheme.