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UK’s wildcat strikes prompt Italian threat

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By Alex Barker in London and Guy Dinmore in Rome

Published: February 2 2009 02:00 | Last updated: February 2 2009 02:00

Britain today faces a further round of wildcat strikes over the use of foreign labour amid confusion over the government’s response and threats of tit-for-tat recriminations by Italian politicians.

British ministers were working behind the scenes last night to stave off further action as the company embroiled in the dispute issued a statement stressing it was open to employing British workers.

Union leaders had earlier accused Gordon Brown, prime minister, of “blaming the workers” as he condemned the strikes as “indefensible” and resisted pressure to call for an overhaul of employment rules.

But Mr Brown’s position was undermined by one of his senior cabinet ministers calling for a new European Union directive to prevent British workers from being “undercut”.

Last night, Mr Brown’s team insisted the focus was on defusing strikes and investigating the contract that sparked the illegal walkout at Total’s oil refinery in Lincolnshire.

In a bid to defuse the protests, Total last night stressed its abidance with UK law, saying it would ensure “British workers are considered in the same way as anyone else”.

Meanwhile, as ministers warned of the dangers of protectionism, Sicily’s conservative governor, Raffaele Lombardo, threatened to retaliate against UK interests if he saw evidence of “xenophobic hate” at the strikes.

Mr Lombardo said 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.

The centre-right coalition government of Silvio Berlusconi, prime minister, has kept largely silent on the issue, possibly fearing that 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.”

Mr Berlusconi’s coalition swept the centre-left from power last April by appealing to workers with protectionist-sounding rhetoric 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.

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

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