Minister warns of xenophobia as British strike spreads


London : Hundreds of British workers continued a wildcat strike action Tuesday even as a senior British minister warned their protests against foreign workers risked feeding the “politics of xenophobia.”

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Workers at nuclear power plants in Sellafield, Wales, and in Heysham, northeast England, joined hundreds of unofficial strikers across Britain angry at claims that British workers were being undercut by labour from Italy and Portugal.

Business Minister Peter Mandelson drew criticism Monday by suggesting the striking workers could be playing into the hands of extremists.

“We should keep our sights set firmly not on the politics of xenophobia but on the economics of this recession,” Mandelson said in remarks addressed at workers who say an Italian construction company hired by a Total-owned refinery in northeast England has been discriminating against British workers.

Strike Committee member Phil Whitehurst denied charges of racism, saying: “People have said it’s racist. It’s not. We’re not part of the BNP [British National Party]. I’ve shunned the BNP away from here.

“It’s about British workers getting access to a British construction site,” he said, adding the strikers had nothing against the Italian workers.

With more walkouts expected Tuesday, the Department of Energy issued a statement insisting that gas and electricity supplies across Britain should be adequate to meet demand despite heavy snows and the industrial action.

British ministers say there is nothing illegal in the Italian company, Irem, using its permanent staff to complete the contract, with Mandelson insisting Irem had been allowed to bid for the contract only after British workers failed to complete it.