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Workers from Coryton oil refinery on Monday disrupted the supply of fuel heading to some petrol stations in the southeast of the country to protest against the plant's closure and demand the government intervene to save 900 jobs.
The protests are unlikely to lead to widespread fuel shortages across Britain, which has seven other functioning refineries, but they are an unwelcome distraction for the government less than two months before the start of the Olympic Games in London.
The likely closure of Coryton, formerly owned by the now-bankrupt Swiss-based company Petroplus, will add to the gloom in the UK jobs market, where unemployment rates are hovering above 8 percent in the recession-hit economy.
"This action needs to be stepped up. The government needs to recognise they still have an important part to play in saving Coryton," said Russ Ball, a regional representative for the Unite union, as workers from Coryton marched on a nearby fuel terminal, owned by firm Vopak, to disrupt supplies.
Union officials said they would aim to disrupt supplies of fuel from terminals in the region, including those in the London area, for a few hours every day and that the action would continue as long as needed.
Drivers with logistics firm DHL, who transport fuel to supermarkets, have refused to drive past the demonstration on health and safety grounds as some 30 protestors blocked the terminal on the banks of the Thames.
CRY FOR HELP
Petroplus fell victim to a rapid debt-fueled expansion and a collapse in oil refining profitability in Europe amid a large surplus of processing capacity.
However, its four other refineries in Germany, Switzerland, France and Belgium have found buyers or suppliers and will therefore remain operational. Coryton's administrator PwC has indicated it is unlikely to find a buyer to keep the plant running.
"It will split up the family. My husband will have to move overseas. And we can't move because my daughter is disabled. So it will leave me alone looking after her," said the wife of a Coryton employee, who gave her name as Sue, wiping tears from her face.
Sue, who declined to give her real name to avoid possible recriminations for her husband, was collecting signatures outside a local supermarket in nearby Corringham, for a petition asking the government to intervene to save the plant.
Britain slipped back into recession at the beginning of 2012, stoking fears that more people will become unemployed at a time when the government is relying on private firms to make up for the estimated 700,000 jobs it is shedding in the public sector as part of its austerity plan.
According to the latest data, the number of people without a job in the UK edged down by 45,000 in the three months to March to 2.625 million with the jobless rate inching down to 8.2 percent.
Although businesses in Britain intend to increase their workforces in the coming year, it is likely that employment growth will continue to be driven by increasing numbers of part-time jobs and below-inflation pay rises.
Besides Coryton, there are seven operating refineries in Britain, according to the UK Petroleum Industry Association, and the country can also easily import fuel from neighbouring countries which also have excess refining capacity.
Like the rest of Europe, Britain is well supplied with fuel, meaning that any impact from fuel shortages will be concentrated on the region of Essex in the East of England where the plant is located.