The wave of strikes across the country should come as no surprise. Popular anger is overcoming complacency and fear. The recession is exposing the true nature of the British economy. We are a country that has been ransacked by the free flow of capital. The strikes are not about xenophobia, they're about large corporations and free markets that are out of control.
The Lincolnshire refinery where the current dispute began is owned by the US oil company Total. It employs the giant American engineering company Jacobs which then subcontracts to an Italian firm, IREM, which cut its labour costs by using its own Italian and Portuguese workers. Big engineering contractors have been recruiting compliant and cheap foreign labour for years.
Britain has lost control of key industries and their labour procurement procedures. The Lincolnshire dispute is a small symptom of a big problem. Britain is a country that no longer owns the productive processes that create its wealth. Crucial economic sectors have been handed over to unaccountable foreign ownership. The government has abandoned workers to exploitation, more concerned with making them fit the global market than in protecting their interests. In Labour's working-class heartlands there is a powerful feeling of being dispossessed.
British and European labour market policies have centred on the drive for flexibility. The increase in short-term contracts, agency work, subcontracting and use of the "self-employed" have left workers with fewer rights. The workforce in Britain is one of the least protected in that market. Growth in employment has been concentrated in low-skill, low-wage jobs in poor conditions. The growing use of temporary and agency workers is spreading these conditions to other parts of the economy.
But worse has been a series of court rulings that have further deregulated labour markets. In 2003 the Finnish ferry company Viking Line reflagged its vessel and employed an Estonian crew, cutting its wage costs by 60%. Its actions were upheld by the European court of justice. In 2004 a Latvian company, Laval, sent workers to building sites in Sweden. The Swedish construction union asked the company to agree to the existing collective agreement within the building sector. It refused, operating instead under the Latvian agreement - including lower pay that undercut the Swedish workers' wages. Again, the court ruled in the company's favour. Workers' conditions and pay need only comply with the laws of the company's home country.
The government has done nothing to halt the EU race to the bottom. Its own labour market policies succeeded in the boom years because exploitation, precarious jobs and exploitative levels of pay could be offset by cheap credit and then hidden behind the sparkle of consumerism. Those times are over. With social insurance in short supply, people's key source of economic security was the rising asset value of their homes. That's gone. There is no cheap credit to make up for falling or stagnant wages.
The left must offer a real and viable alternative. We have to reverse the years of wealth redistribution from poor to rich. We need regulation to end low pay, low skill and casualised labour. Strong trade unions are the best defence against exploitation. Work and quality of life can be improved by introducing a living wage. And why don't we discuss having a maximum income? Both can be defined by establishing a maximum ratio of difference between the most and least well-paid. We need to create new forms of economic citizenship, and bring the economy and work under greater democratic control. That should be the agenda, not "British jobs for British workers".