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Brexit Job fears dominate as British workers argue over EU referendum

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Cameron talks late into night in Brussels, EU digs in heels play

Cameron talks late into night in Brussels, EU digs in heels

(Reuters)

Arguments on the merits of the European Union and whether workers should gamble with their jobs by voting to leave the bloc are becoming something of an obsession on factory floors across Britain.

At one plant which makes Typhoon eurofighter jets for BAE Systems in northwestern England, employees have gone over the debate so many times before a June 23 referendum on Britain's EU membership that they can anticipate one another's views.

Sarcasm, strong language and down-to-earth humour dominated the conversation between seven workers and trade union members during a work break this month but, despite their differences, they found common ground on one thing - jobs.

Though hostile to Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, who wants Britain to stay in the EU, and disdainful of Brussels, many were hesitant about voting to leave the 28-nation bloc for fear that it could lead to factory closures and job losses.

Such fears are what Cameron, and the "In" campaign which says being part of the EU makes Britain's economy stronger, are banking on under a strategy which critics say amounts to little more than scare-mongering.

"It's about jobs, I still need to work ... not just for me, but for everybody else who works at BAE," Peter Raw, an electrician, said over a cup of coffee in the union building at BAE Systems' Samlesbury site in the industrial city of Preston.

"And it's not just BAE ... there are a lot of companies around here that would go to the wall without BAE. So imagine if this place went, this area would be an absolute ghost town."

Raw describes the east Lancashire region as "totally dependent on BAE", which itself put the number of jobs supported by the defence company's operations in the Preston area at almost 7,000 in 2013, ranging from those in the indirect supply chain to places where workers spend their wages.

On a series of visits up and down the country in the few weeks so far of campaigning to keep Britain in the EU, Cameron has warned workers, students and farmers that voting to leave the bloc will cost jobs and has tried to ease fears about immigration if it stays in.

He says the right to curb social payments to EU migrants will reduce the flow, but is struggling to debunk a perception that unfettered movement across the bloc favours low paid workers from abroad despite data challenging that argument.

His visit to another BAE site in Preston last month, when he warned workers that 3 million jobs were linked to the EU, hit home in a city where the demise of much of its industry has left many skilled and unskilled workers increasingly dependent on a few, big employers.

Raw acknowledges that the threat of losing his job if EU countries pull investment from Britain just about trumps his belief that EU membership has fuelled migration, which he says has hurt wages and increased unemployment among British people.

But he says that if someone he trusted could guarantee he would keep his job if he voted to leave the European Union, he would oppose EU membership on June 23.

INDUSTRIAL NORTH

BAE, a global defence, aerospace and security company, employed 9,500 full-time workers at its Preston sites in 2013 - its most recent figures - a large number for a city of 110,000 people.

Wages for skilled workers employed at BAE sites in the area are at around 33,000 pounds ($46,516), the workers said, above the national average salary for 2015 of 22,487 pounds.

It is one of few industries left in the city, where outside the centre, streets are pockmarked with boarded-up shops and derelict pubs. Eastern European delicatessens have started opening up, catering for some of those taking up often unskilled jobs in the region.

Unemployment of 5.6 percent in Preston outpaced the national average of 5.4 last year, according to official data, and workers here say the city is surrounded by some of Britain's poorest areas, underlining a growing insecurity that has given way to concerns about rising immigration.

Many people blame migrants, especially from EU countries in eastern Europe, for forcing down wages and say they have "stolen" jobs in the area, fuelling support for eurosceptic groups such as the UK Independence Party.

With opinion polls showing the British public is split over whether to stay in the EU, winning the immigration debate may be decisive.

Cameron has targeted workers in his campaign to try to rebut the "Out" campaign's argument that by leaving the EU, Britain can take back control of its borders. The prime minister says instead Britain will be less safe outside the EU because security cooperation may falter and has warned that thousands of migrants could head to the country from camps in France.

But he hopes that if he cannot win them over, the opposition Labour Party can do so. Unlike the Conservative Party, Labour is largely united in wanting to remain in.

"There are undoubtedly going to be issues that ordinary working people will need to be convinced about ... My union has one and a half million members and we'll be speaking to all of them and try to put forward the positive case for the EU," Len McCluskey, head of Britain's biggest trade union, Unite, told an audience at the German embassy in London last week.

 

COMPANY PRESSURE

Much of big business is also making the case for staying in the bloc to its staff. German carmaker BMW has written to its British employees about the risks it would face if the country voted to leave, while a third of Britain's biggest companies have backed Cameron's call to stay in.

The chairman of BAE, Roger Carr, was one of the nearly 200 company bosses who signed a letter published in the Times newspaper last month to put forward the merits of the EU, but the firm has not rallied its staff.

Barry Hough, a 58-year-old fitter who is the only one of the group who is certain that he will vote to leave the EU, joked that he would probably not believe the company's message anyway.

But when Cameron visited Samlesbury's sister site on the other side of the city, his warning that leaving the EU could complicate defence cooperation with Italy, France and Germany touched a nerve.

"I'm not sure we will ever go back to being able to build a plane on our own, but certainly being able to build it as part of a European consortium has kept us in work," said Roland Entwistle, the union representatives at the Samlesbury site.

Phil Allman, trade union representative for northwest England, agreed, saying: "You've got to remember that it's not just the one job here, for every one job here there is four outside of here that are linked to them."

But what some call Cameron's "threats" leave a bitter taste, as does supporting a politician who, to these workers, seems to be holding the referendum largely just to please the eurosceptic wing of his party - a charge Cameron denies.

"He's risking everything for the rump of the Tory (Conservative) Party," worker Alan Quinn said.

"I'll tell you what will happen. If we do go out, the Scots will stay in and the Welsh will, and England will split in half. You'll have the south full of the dodgy money men ... and the north will wither on the vine." ($1 = 0.7094 pounds) 

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