A planned strike at Fawley oil refinery has been called off after bosses agreed to a new pay deal that will put an end to the situation of foreign workers earning less than half the wages of British workers employed on the same site. Workers complained that “Nico workers, mainly Bulgarians and Italians, were being paid about £48 for a 10 hour-day, while the 270 other workers on the site, employed by other contractors, were on about £125-a-day. British workers employed by Nico were also paid the £125-a-day rate.”
On the face of it, this is obviously great news in itself. Any time workers fight for better pay and win it, it’s worth celebrating. But what’s more important here is what it shows about the real, material foundations of things like racism, nationalism and international solidarity. These things aren’t just nice or nasty ideas that nice or nasty people have. They’re reactions to real conditions in people’s lives.
In particular, the fact that Nico had been able to get away with paying its Bulgarian and Italian workers less than half the rate it paid to its British workers shows that the idea of “foreigners taking our jobs” is not just a racist myth. Any sensible employer will take a worker who can do the job for £48 a day over one who they’ll have to pay £125 a day. And in that situation, it’s not unreasonable for British workers, wanting to earn a decent wage for doing the job, to hope for politicians to increase harsher border controls and keep the competition out. In this situation, it’s not enough to tell them that they’re wrong and bad people and need to think about other people’s rights and needs more. What’s needed is a real alternative, and that’s what the Fawley oil refinery workers have provided: proof of the fact that workers standing together, despite national divisions, can make life better for those at the bottom, and so put a stop to the race to the bottom that makes life worse for everyone.
The workers at Fawley haven’t just succeeded in winning better pay: they’ve also provided a practical example of what it can actually look like to go beyond the nation.