Peter Mandelson, business secretary, warned on Monday that ceding to union demands that the government reserve jobs for British workers would damage the national interest as wildcat strikes spread in protest at the use of foreign labour.

Such a protectionist measure would “run contrary to the single market and harm British interests,” Lord Mandelson said. In a statement to the House of Lords, he stressed the fact that 300,000 UK companies are operating elsewhere in Europe.

About 900 contractors agreed to down tools for 24 hours at Sellafield, the nuclear site in north-west England, in sympathy with a protest that started last Wednesday at a Lincolnshire oil refinery. They are involved in decommissioning an old reactor and other building work and will not affect safety or fuel reprocessing at the site, Sellafield Ltd said.

Some 300 contractors at the nearby Heysham nuclear power station in Lancashire also staged a walkout. Up to 500 workers at South Hook, a major LNG terminal in MIlford Haven in west Wales, went on strike for a second day in a show of solidarity after a first walkout on Friday.

The business secretary also emphasised that foreign companies operating in the UK were legally barred from excluding British nationals from recruitment. He said the government had asked Acas, the independent arbitration service, to report “very quickly” on its investigation into the allegations of such practices, which helped to spark the spate of strikes.

Gordon Brown, prime minister, earlier on Monday warned that the wildcat walkouts were an “unproductive” way to address workers’ concerns about potential loss of employment.

But Mr Brown’s position was undermined by one of his senior cabinet ministers calling for a new European Union directive to prevent British workers from being “undercut”.

The actions began last Wednesday at the Lindsey Oil Refinery, North Killinghome, after an Italian company brought in its own workers to carry out a building contract.

Total, the French oil company that owns the refinery, was in talks with strikers on Monday.

Workers at Sellafield echoed the common refrain of safeguarding “British jobs for British workers”. Though this is not an issue at Sellafield, union shop stewards said foreign companies elsewhere were undercutting and refusing to hire locals.

“If it happened there [Lindsey] it can happen anywhere,” said Willy Doggert, an official with the GMB union, who is stripping asbestos at the site. “We want a level playing field.”

Sellafield employs about 12,000 people and dominates the economy of the remote rural area. Workers appear to be thinking of the future as much as the present.

For security reasons only those who have lived in the UK for at least three years can work on the site, but such restrictions might not apply to the building of a new nuclear power station. Sellafield is one of several sties shortlisted by the government.

British Energy, which would build it, is being taken over by EDF of France.

The workers will meet again on February 10 after a meeting of union officials the day before to decide whether to take further action.

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