LONDON -- In the face of growing protests and rising unemployment, the British government said Saturday it understands the frustration of energy workers who have walked out over the hiring of foreign citizens. But it warned against protectionism, saying isolating the British economy would only make the downturn worse.
Thousands of energy workers across Britain walked off the job Friday in a rapidly expanding campaign of protests sparked by the hiring of Italian and Portuguese workers for an oil industry construction project in northern England.
Under European Union rules, the Italian and Portuguese laborers have the same right to work in Britain as British citizens do -- and Britons have the right to work in other EU nations.
Business Secretary Peter Mandelson said Saturday that he understood people's concerns about jobs in a weakening economy; the jobless rate is 6.1 percent. But he said protectionism "would be a surefire way of turning recession into depression."
"It would be a huge mistake to retreat from a policy where, within the rules, U.K. companies can operate in Europe and European companies can operate here," Mandelson said.
The protests reflect concern about current unemployment, and fears of more layoffs as the global economic slump worsens.
The wildcat strikes were triggered by the decision of Italian construction company IREM SpA to use Italian and Portuguese workers for a 200 million-pound ($280 million) project at a Total refinery in northeast England.
Union leaders say IREM acted unfairly because it did not allow British workers to apply for the jobs.
"No company should be able to discriminate against anyone on the grounds of where they were born," said Paul Kenny, general secretary of the GMB union. "You simply cannot say that only Italians can apply for jobs, as has happened in this case."
Government officials held talks with union leaders and mediators Saturday amid fears the unrest could spread. More talks were scheduled for next week.
On Friday, 700 hundred employees held a wildcat strike at the Grangemouth refinery in Scotland. About 400 workers and supporters demonstrated outside a refinery at Wilton operated by Swiss firm Petroplus AG in northern England, and about 50 people joined a demonstration at the Aberthaw power plant in Wales. Workers also demonstrated at Kilroot power station in Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland, and several smaller sites.
Union leaders on Friday reminded Prime Minister Gordon Brown that in a 2007 speech he promised to provide "British jobs for British workers."
A spokesman for Brown said the contract at the center of the dispute had been agreed "some time ago when there was a shortage of skilled labor in the construction sector in the U.K."
"That obviously is not now the case and we will be speaking to the industry in the next few days to ensure that they are doing all they can to support UK economy," he said on condition of anonymity in line with government policy.