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Import labour, export jobs


British employers seem to have only two strategies. 1: if you can move the work elsewhere, then find cheaper labour abroad. 2: if you can't move the work abroad, then go abroad and import cheaper labour. That, in a nutshell, is what that fancy term globalisation is all about.

In early December 16 skilled glaziers who were working on a new NHS building in Manchester and who were employed by Bovis Lend Lease had their contracts terminated. When they had been taken on originally, most had been assured that their contract would run until 2010.

It transpired that Bovis Lend Lease had subcontracted the work to the Dutch firm Sheldebouw and following the termination of contract, it was discovered that the work of the 16 glaziers was now been done by Polish migrants. One of the workers, Martin Kelly, said he and his workmates had paid the price for being a "British worker on a British wage".

One of the "explanations" government ministers frequently give for immigration being a good thing is that the skills are not available in the British population. But here there was no skill shortage and one of the 16 sacked men had recently won an award for dedication and professionalism.

The glaziers were members of the construction union UCATT, which is taking up the case. Interestingly Hazel Blears, Chair of the Labour Party, has been forced to admit that government claims that immigration helps the economy do not hold sway with voters.

And last month, despite receiving grants of nearly £7 million, National Cash Registers (NCR) is axing 650 jobs at its Dundee factory ... and relocating the work to Hungary. The workforce here are considering a sit-in among other options.

NCR is only one of countless employers going down the relocation route (see Birds Eye, page 3). Employers used to relocate out of centres of traditional industrial union strength, such as London, to new towns and greenfield sites in Britain in the hope of lowering costs and boosting profits. Now, with the European Union, they can pick and choose among 24 countries.

As Workers goes to press, British Airways faces a strike by cabin crew following a massive 96 per cent ballot vote for action. Short-term, BA is in a tight spot, and stands to lose more than £100 million. Long-term, will it be tempted to go the way of its contractor, Gate Gourmet, and import more pliant labour? Or go the way of Qantas and set up more cabin crew hubs abroad?

Either way, workers at BA may soon be facing a fight to keep the airline as a truly national carrier.