'Perfect storm' facing UK ports

Brexit certainty and investment in workers key to resolving port congestion

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Unite is urging the government to end the uncertainty over securing a post-Brexit trade deal in order to help resolve the congestion being experienced at the UK’s ports.

The union, which represents dock workers, is urging the government to ensure that port owners are investing in and recruiting sufficient workers to meet the UK’s future challenges. Several of the UK’s largest ports are currently experiencing labour shortages, a problem that has been exacerbated by recent attacks on workers’ pay, conditions and overtime rates.

A perfect storm is currently affecting UK ports – consisting of companies attempting to stockpile goods before the UK’s transition period from the European Union ends on 31 December, large orders of Covid-related materials and the usual Christmas demands for goods – resulting in serious backlogs.

A domino effect has occurred, following delays and congestion at Felixstowe, ship owners have diverted cargo to other ports and this has resulted in congestion developing at other ports including Southampton and London Gateway.

Unite is concerned that if the matters regarding Brexit and congestion are not quickly resolved shipping companies will take the decision to send their largest ships to Europe and then 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.

One proposed solution to the current congestion that Unite is opposed to is a relaxation in the regulations governing lorry drivers’ hours. Unite does not believe this will resolve the congestion problem and there are major safety implications, with fatigue being a higher risk during the winter months when a lack of daylight and poor weather makes driving more stressful and dangerous.

Unite national officer for docks Bobby Morton said, “It is essential that the problems being faced at the UK’s ports are speedily resolved in order to ensure that shipping companies don’t take the decision to divert their cargo elsewhere.

“Brexit uncertainty has caused a massive challenge as companies have sought to stockpile goods ahead of the transition period ending and this has created severe congestion at an already busy time of year,” he added.

“The government has a clear role to play. Firstly, end the uncertainty over a Brexit deal and allow key players to understand future trading operations.

“The government must also ensure that the port operators have sufficient workers to meet current demands and future challenges. Skimping on manpower and poor treatment of workers is only going to worsen the problems being experienced at the UK’s ports.

“It is essential that these matters are speedily resolved. A delay will result in UK ports being downgraded to feeder ports, hitting employment and income, at a time when it is critical that the UK makes it explicit that it is very much open for business.”

Unite national officer for road haulage Adrian Jones noted, “Lorry drivers should not be forced to pay for the mismanagement of others. Relaxing driving hours increases fatigue, which increases the risk of accident for the drivers themselves and all other road users.

“There are sufficient drivers to collect the waiting cargo, but the ports need to ensure that goods can be collected and delivered more swiftly,” he added.

“Putting more drivers into the port areas will simply increase congestion and make the problem worse.

“Relaxing driver hours will result in increased levels of fatigue, which is especially dangerous in poor weather that frequently occurs during the winter months.”

By Barckley Sumner

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