Unite has responded to a call by the British Retail Consortium (BRC) and the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) for an investigation by parliament into the congestion at Britain’s ports, to warn that any proposed solution must not risk the health and wellbeing of the workers involved.
The blame for the congestion at some UK ports has been attributed to a ‘perfect storm’ caused by a number of factors including: an increase in imports following the end of the first lockdown, Brexit related stockpiling, the usual pre-Christmas extra demand for goods and issues regarding the non-collection of PPE at ports.
Unite members working at the ports are also keen to remind MPs and business, however, that rules to ensure social distancing mean that it takes longer to unload ships safely.
A further problem is a shortage of labour at some ports, which is linked to previous rounds of redundancies.
Last week, Unite expressed its deep concern that the government’s initial response to the congestion at the ports was to relax the regulations governing how long lorry drivers can drive for until the end of 2020.
The union warned that this measure will not relieve congestion, as the issue lies with dockside operational capacity and there are already sufficient drivers to take the loads. But it will increase fatigue, which poses a danger to other road users and the drivers themselves, particularly during winter bad weather.
Unite is also concerned that workers in the food, drink and retail industry could be forced to work excessive hours as port congestion is tackled, resulting in a surge of goods delivered via supply chains.
Unite assistant general secretary Diana Holland said,“It is crystal clear that workers at ports, lorry drivers and those employed in food production and retail supply chains must not be forced to pay for the mismanagement of others.
“If MPs do launch an investigation into port congestion the voice and concerns of workers must not be ignored.”
Unite national officer for docks Bobby Morton added, “Unite’s safety reps and local officials have worked closely with port authorities to ensure that workplaces are Covid secure. This results in some procedures taking longer but the union will not allow corners to be cut, endangering the health of workers.
“Select committees should also investigate if ports have a sufficient workforce to meet the current and future challenges the UK faces.”
Unite national officer for road transport Adrian Jones noted, “The government has already failed to heed warnings and concerns from Unite and relaxed the HGV driving regulations. Relaxing the regulations is simply going to increase fatigue and risk an increase in accidents.
“Unite will strongly oppose any further relaxation of drivers’ hours into the new year, as it amounts to gambling with the safety of all road users.”
Meanwhile, Unite national officer for food, drink agriculture Joe Clarke said, “Unite has been working on common objectives with the Food and Drink Federation throughout the whole of the Covid crisis and equally with shared common objectives in relation to Brexit. The workers in the food industry should not pay the cost of government failure through increased hours within food production.
“These workers have spent the whole of this year already working above and beyond the call of duty to keep the nation fed and supplied with the food and goods the UK’s population needs.”
By Barckley Sumner