Residents of Kent well remember when the Garden of England became the Toilet of England in the summer of 2015 after the migrant crisis and French labour disputes shut down the Dover-Calais border.
At its peak “Operation Stack” stretched for 36 miles along the M20 and contained 7,000 trucks. Kent County Council and charities distributed thousands of water bottles and meals to drivers stranded without access to facilities for as long as 18 hours. Kent’s road network was gridlocked and there were disruptions to public transport and refuse collection. Local businesses also suffered because people were fearful of getting caught in traffic. The estimated cost to Kent’s economy was £1.5m per day.
Now that Britain has fully left the European Union, Operation Brock has replaced Operation Stack, but the scenario it’s trying to avoid is the same. The government’s reasonable worst-case scenario warns of queues of up 7,000 lorries in Kent once again. The county now has four massive lorry parks to deal with cross-border holdups. But true to form for a government that has neglected to prepare for the practicalities of leaving the EU, there has been next to no information about what welfare facilities are available for lorry drivers.
While the UK is still gripped by Covid-19, decent and clean toilets and washing facilities, with hot and cold running water are especially important. There should also be provision of hot food and rest areas for drivers. That’s why Kent’s MPs and councillors have been asked to support Unite’s efforts to ensure that the necessary facilities are provided.
As Unite regional officer for Kent, Phil Silkstone, commented, “The government has had years to plan for how transport will be managed post-Brexit but it has singularly failed to do so. The health and safety of drivers must not be put at risk as a result of the government’s failings.”
Links from Dover to the continent are not the only issues facing Britain’s coastal gateways. In December it emerged that a perfect storm was affecting UK ports. Due to companies stockpiling goods before the transition period ended on December 31, as well as large orders of Covid-related materials and Christmas demands for goods, serious backlogs occurred. Following delays and congestion at Felixstowe, ships were diverted elsewhere, resulting in congestion at other ports, including Southampton and London Gateway.
Making the situation worse was the fact that several of the UK’s largest ports were experiencing labour shortages, a problem that has been exacerbated by recent attacks on workers’ pay, conditions and overtime rates. Unite is concerned if port congestion continues, shipping companies will take the decision to send their largest ships to Europe and transfer UK goods onto smaller ships. This would result in UK ports being downgraded to feeder ports, resulting in the loss of skills, income and employment.
In response to clogged up ports during December, the government temporarily relaxed the enforcement of minimum hours’ rules for HGV drivers. Given with the potential for further delays during 2021, there are fears that minimum driving hours rules could be suspended for longer.
“There are sufficient drivers to collect waiting cargo, but the ports need to ensure that goods can be collected and delivered more swiftly. Relaxing driver hours results in increased levels of fatigue, which is especially dangerous in poor weather,” explained Unite national officer, Adrian Jones.
It’s not just the transport network that would be impacted by port congestion – the resultant knock-on effects would be felt across industry, with car making and other complex manufacturing particularly vulnerable.
In December, Honda announced that it was temporarily shutting down its Swindon factory due to “transport-related parts delays”. Unite national officer Steve Bush pointed out that the automotive industry depends on 1,100 lorry deliveries every day, saying the sector “cannot function if there is chaos at our ports, as the Honda shutdown illustrates”.
In an effort to smooth the way for a US trade deal, the UK government has also hindered aerospace manufacturers. Beginning on January 1, the UK suspended tariffs on Boeing it subscribed to as part of the EU. Boeing’s main competitor, Airbus, employs around 12,500 people in the UK. Unite assistant general secretary for manufacturing, Steve Turner, said the move will “send shockwaves through the UK’s manufacturing communities and will affect workers well beyond the aerospace sector.”
Even if suspending tariffs on Boeing helps American trade negotiators, the UK will not have an easy ride in striking a trade deal with the US. Unite assistant general secretary for international, Tony Burke, said that US trade negotiators are tough and will squeeze ‘every last drop’ from the UK and will want access to the NHS, the pharmaceutical and food sectors.
Trade deals with the Far East will be dominated by China, a country which will also leverage its might to be extremely demanding, he said. Not last and not least will be the UK’s evolving trading relationship with the EU, which Burke said will include on-going sectoral discussions and disputes. Then there is the complex issue of trade remedies on disputes off dumping of goods – leading to disputes with other countries about tariffs.
“Ensuring the UK navigates these new trading waters in the best interests of workers,” Burke said, “will be made more difficult because we have a government who ideologically will want to water down EU employment rights unless they sign up for a guaranteed level playing field.
“That’s why our relationships with unions across the world – who we are talking too – and in the case of the USA and Canada with the United Steelworkers through our Workers Uniting structure, are so vital.”
By Ryan Fletcher
This feature first appeared in Unite Works Winter 2020/21. For members to receive a digital copy contact your regional office and ask the membership team to put you on the digimag email subscription list