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UK: Sharp fall in workers from East Europe

  The number of eastern Europeans coming to work in Britain has nearly halved, in part because of the ailing British economy, weaker pound and new European Union-funded building in Poland, the government said on Tuesday.

The Conservatives said the drop reflected the “dreadful state of the British economy.”

Applications from Poland, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia and Slovenia fell from 53,000 in the last quarter of 2007 to 29,000 in the same period of 2008, the lowest since they joined the EU in 2004.

“Some of it of course reflects the (British) economic situation and some of it reflects the changing value of the pound against the zloty and other currencies,” Immigration Minister Phil Woolas told the BBC.

With Britain in recession and unemployment rising, unions have accused the government of failing to support British workers in the face of competition from migrant workers. Workers at a French-owned oil refinery in eastern England staged a week-long unofficial strike earlier this month over the use of foreign labor, triggering a wave of sympathy protests.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown, trailing in the polls ahead of an election due by mid-2010, says migrant workers make a huge economic contribution and has refused calls for annual limits. But new rules will ensure British workers have the “first crack of the whip at getting work,” Woolas said in a statement.

Conservative immigration spokesman Damian Green said that while fewer migrant workers were applying to come to Britain, 17% more of those already here have decided to stay. “This shows how foolish Gordon Brown’s promise of British jobs for British workers was,” he added. (Reuters)