The European Commission has said it will not be pressured into making new rules on employees' rights with an EU law governing the hiring of foreign workers at the centre of a high-level dispute in Britain.
Workers at the Lindsey oil refinery in north-eastern England have been protesting a move by the refinery's owner, Total, to award a €220 million (₤200m) contract to Italian-based firm Irem. em is using its own employees - Italian and Portuguese workers - for the job. EU rules say this is allowed for temporary contracts so long as the foreign workers are employed under the same terms as local workers.
But British workers have been protesting the move, which comes at time when the country is facing rising unemployment rates and is officially in recession, having been hard hit by the global financial crisis.
The strikes, which started in the middle of last week, on Monday spread to Sellafield, a nuclear plant in the north-west of England, where around 900 are on strike for 24 hours.
But the commission is refusing to be rushed into changing the so-called Posted Workers Directive, one of the key laws guaranteeing the functioning of the internal market.
It pointed out that Britain has strongly benefited from the law, with more workers posted abroad than it has foreign workers posted in the UK, and said it was the best tool with which to fight the current economic downturn. "At this stage ...we have considered that it is not necessary to revise the Posted Workers Directive," said employment spokeswoman Chantal Hugues, suggesting that the protests are more about people being generally "worried about their jobs" than about the application of the directive.
The commission's chief spokesman, Johannes Laitenberger, underlined several times the importance of open markets and warned against a "spiral of people closing borders to each other," which would eventually mean that "all will be the poorer."
"I think we have sympathy for the concerns of the people, but that does not mean that their problems will be solved by the wrong solutions."
His words came as the head of the Party of European Socialists accused the commission of being right-wing and committed to laissez-faire economic policies.
"The strikes in the UK are just the latest example of growing frustration and fear among workers. Workers are beginning to question the freedom of movement because the European Commission has allowed it to be used to undermine wages and working conditions," said party chief Poul Nyrup Rassmussen.
The 1996 Posted Workers Directive has become a focal point of anger for trade unions and left-wing politicians.
They say that while they support the principle of free movement of workers, the law itself is being abused.
This feeling was compounded by two landmark judgements by the EU'S highest court, known as the Viking and Laval cases, that say that workers cannot protest against foreign companies bringing in workers and paying them less than stipulated within local collective bargaining agreements.
"European governments must close this legal loophole that drives a huge hole through social Europe," said Brendan Barber of Britain's Trade Union Congress on Friday, referring to the directive.
For his part, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has defended the EU law and tried to calm tensions in the dispute.
However, his words "British jobs for British people" uttered in his first speech to the Labour Party in late 2007, echoed on the banners and in the speeches of the strikers, have come back to haunt him as his government struggles to stop the dispute from taking on a xenophobic note.