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From The Socialist newspaper, 20 May 2009

Union organisation necessary to defend working conditions

This is an edited version of a letter written by Lindsey Oil Refinery (LOR) union steward Paul McDowell to the Grimsby Evening Telegraph exposing the company Irem.

I write in response to a recent article published in the Grimsby Evening Telegraph, regarding the protests that were held outside Lindsey Oil Refinery and Conoco Philips in support of the demonstration at the London Olympics.

I have been involved with the discussions regarding the employment of Irem on the site, and the 102 jobs that were created as a result of the strikes that were held in February.

This company used the pretext of providing a highly skilled workforce that was not available in the UK. This is categorically untrue, their workforce is primarily made up of semi-skilled individuals.

The actual number of semi-skilled employees for Irem is 129. They have 101 advanced craftsmen, giving a percentage of 44% skilled workers. Although it was documented in the audit report that there were 69 semi-skilled to 214 advanced craftsmen employed for the same period, giving a percentage of 75% skilled workers.

Shaw Group UK, as with the vast majority of UK engineering firms, and all that are in strict adherence to the National Agreement, operate with a workforce with a majority of advanced craftsmen. For the same audit period, the ratio of semi-skilled to advanced craft for Shaw is 35 to 222 - a percentage of 86% highly skilled workers.

There are numerous benefits for Irem in this situation, particularly the enormous savings made in labour costs throughout the duration of the contract. There are a catalogue of deficits as a result. Irem have brought with them a travelling workforce of labourers. This is unheard of in our industry and it excludes local workers, who rely on such positions. There are numerous dangers created by inferior workmanship carried out by an unskilled workforce.

Compounding this situation is the fact that unsafe working practices have been observed throughout the period since Irem began working. As a result it was requested that support be provided from employees of RBC (the company providing the 102 new jobs), particularly for rigging/erecting.

Do we ignore the gravity of this and allow the work to continue until a major accident occurs? Or worse, do we cross our fingers and hope that we all come away from the project unscathed, only to find that some time in the future, an oversight in the installation process, as a result of a failure to assess competence, creates another Buncefield? [Where an oil depot blew up after a fuel leak.]

I am angry that these points may be dismissed as stemming from the disputes in February. But as far as I am concerned it makes no difference whether I am British, French, Italian or Sri Lankan, this is a matter of serious importance that is presently jeopardising the lives of hundreds of people.

The issue of posted workers is ever present, but being trade union organised we have the means to ensure our health, safety, welfare, pay and conditions are upheld.

I hope this sheds some light on the feelings of the LOR employees, and perhaps offers a better understanding of why there was such an indignant exit en masse, when we heard of Irem's arrival. Similar situations are arising up and down the country, and I must inform you that the untempered frustration of my colleagues may well create a return to February's events if this remains unchecked.

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