Union bosses threatening to co-ordinate lorry strikes amid rows over pay and conditions for drivers were last night accused of plotting to ‘hold Christmas hostage’.
Unite is to ballot thousands of supermarket and delivery drivers over a mass walkout over the coming days – the largest strike threat of its kind since the notorious Winter of Discontent more than 40 years ago.
The recent supply chain crisis, which many fear will continue to cause empty shelves into the festive season, has given truckers ‘power’, the union said.
As a result, their representatives are demanding commitments from ministers to provide clean toilets and catering facilities at truck stops as well as a pay rise for veteran drivers, after new starters were offered salaries of £50,000 to get behind the wheel.
Unite – whose new leader Sharon Graham promised to operate ‘on the edge of the law’ to protect members’ rights – also wants temporary rules allowing staff to be on the road for up to 10 hours a day to be scrapped.
However, Government sources have slammed the proposals, insisting a mass walkout would cause huge disruption to the tireless work ongoing to try and keep shelves stocked and limit food shortages.
A Department for Transport spokesman told the Telegraph: ‘It would be reckless for unions to hold Christmas hostage and damage the work being done to restore supply chains at this vital time of year.
‘We have already taken immediate action to increase the supply of HGV drivers, streamline the testing process and improve working conditions.
‘We are pleased employers are working towards long-term solutions through improved testing and hiring, with better pay and working conditions, and will continue to support them to do so.’
Unite is to ballot thousands of supermarket and delivery drivers over a mass walkout over the coming days – the largest strike threat of its kind since the notorious Winter of Discontent more than 40 years ago
Thousands of shipping containers at the Port of Felixstowe in Suffolk, as shipping giant Maersk has said it is diverting vessels away from UK ports to unload elsewhere in Europe because of a build-up of cargo due to the HGV crisis
Empty shelves at a Sainsbury’s store in Charlton, South East London earlier this week
Unite’s new leader Sharon Graham (pictured) has promised to operate ‘on the edge of the law’ to protect members’ rights
Ministers fear such wholesale action would be on a similar scale to the Winter of Discontent, where strikes across a host of nationalised industries inflicted misery on Britons in the bitterly cold months at the turn of 1978-79.
Streets were piled high with rubbish bags and even dead bodies were left to rot as binmen and grave-diggers joined in the widespread walkouts.
Unite represents around 50,000 HGV drivers, including those for major supermarkets Sainsbury’s and Tesco, so the impact of the threat would be seismic for the supply chain.
Adrian Jones, the union’s national officer for road transport at Unite, told the paper: ‘HGV drivers are the blood in the body of our economy. We will not hesitate to cut that supply off if the Government and the employers refuse to do what is necessary.’
Current laws prevent one large national strike, he added, due to the fact unions must register their disputes with each individual employer.
However, industry leaders are looking into coordinating action in order to cause maximum disruption over the coming weeks.
It comes after supermarkets were mocked yesterday for filling gaps on shelves with bizarre items to make stores look less bare, amid growing fears over a lack of goods coming in.
Shops such as Tesco and Co-op have been caught piling salad cream, HP sauce and cooking oil into chillers in a desperate bid to take up space. Meanwhile chocolate boxes have been chucked into fruit and vegetable slots.
A Tesco Extra in Cardiff put a huge display of sunflower oil at the end of a frozen food aisle, while a Co-Op placed salad cream and HP Sauce in chillers – and a Gloucester Asda filled empty shelves with Lynx Africa deodorant.
Elsewhere, a Tesco in Pontypridd, South Wales, put a wall of tomatoes in place of the usual salad items. And a Co-op store in Hertfordshire filled fruit and vegetable sections with Quality Street, Celebrations and Dairy Milk.
Supermarkets have been mocked for filling gaps on shelves with bizarre items to make stores look less bare. Pictured: A Co-op store in Hertfordshire, where chocolate bags of Quality Street and Celebrations are replacing fruits and vegetables
A Gloucester Asda store which has filled empty shelves with Lynx Africa on the toiletries aisle is pictured yesterday morning
Twitter user Stuart Turner posted this picture on September 17 of his local Co-Op having put salad cream in the fridges
Empty shelves in Leeds are picture today as stocks run low at a Sainsbury’s supermarket due to supply issues
One in three retailers in Britain are expecting prices to increase over the next three months amid cost pressures from rising transport costs, higher energy prices and ongoing labour shortages.
The British Retail Consortium said there are ‘clear signs’ the combination of issues are ‘starting to filter through to consumer prices’, and small retailers across the UK say they are expecting to have to charge more.
But others said they are ‘desperately holding off from being a Christmas grinch and keeping everything the same’ because they don’t want to give shoppers more reasons not to buy in what is already a tough market.
Earlier, Rishi Sunak could only offer limited reassurance there would be presents under the tree this Christmas amid fears the supply chain crisis will leave shelves bare, blaming global factors for the chaos.
The Chancellor admitted the government ‘can’t fix every single problem’, but said ministers were doing ‘absolutely everything we can’ to solve issues at British ports and in shops ahead of the festive period.
The crisis in shops was sparked by a dearth of HGV drivers and a lack of CO2 pumped into packaging to keep produce fresh or fizzy.
There has also been stockpiling as shoppers hoard non-perishable products and frozen goods that they need for Christmas dinner.
It comes as the soaring cost of the festive season was laid bare last night amid rising prices on Chinese imports as well as higher petrol, energy and food bills.
Products leaving factories in China cost 10.7 per cent more last month compared with the same time last year.
It is the highest rise in 26 years amid runaway energy and commodity prices.
Analysts expect this to make white goods, electronics, furniture, games consoles and many other products more expensive.
Separately, there is strong evidence that panic buying of toys and other products has already begun, with brands such as Barbie and Lego selling at ‘Christmas quantities’.
There has also been a surge in sales of frozen turkeys, while 75 per cent more Christmas puddings have been purchased than usual at this time of year.
The soaring cost of Christmas was laid bare last night amid rising prices on Chinese imports as well as higher petrol, energy and food bills
Disruption at Britain’s ports threatens shortages of many products, with Ikea warning that supply problems could continue for another 12 months.
Jon Abrahamsson Ring, chief executive of its parent company, said: ‘This is here for a longer period than we thought of at the beginning of the crisis.’
The British Retail Consortium (BRC) warned that three in five retailers will be pushing up prices in the coming weeks.
Its director of food and sustainability, Andrew Opie, said: ‘There are clear signs that the cost pressures from rising transport costs, higher energy and commodity prices, and ongoing labour shortages, all of which are starting to filter through to consumer prices.’
He insisted the only way to stem increases is for the Government to change visa rules to allow in more foreign workers who are needed to fill vacancies across the economy.
Ministers have made some small changes to visa rules to allow in 5,500 HGV drivers, 5,000 workers in poultry processing and some 800 butchers to handle pigs and pork.
However, the BRC, farmers and the rest of the food industry say this piecemeal approach will not make a significant difference.
The recent petrol panic means the cost of fuel to business and the public has surged, which will feed through to delivery and shopping basket costs.
While an energy price shock, with the cost of gas and electricity, will push up the price of manufactured goods, everything from the metal used in new cars to bricks, dinner plates, paint and industrial chemicals.
Just this week, major food firms have warned that prices, everything from chicken to baked beans, will have to cost more as part of a move to permanently higher prices.
The ‘Chicken King’, Ranjit Singh Boparan, owner of the 2 Sisters Group, said: ‘The days when you could feed a family of four with a £3 chicken are coming to an end.’
The Bank of England recently predicted the annual inflation rate will rise above 4 per cent by the end of the year. Some economists predict it could go on to reach 6 per cent next year.
Against that background, there is a chance of a rise in interest rates, which will hit borrowers and those with variable-rate mortgages.
This week, Conservative Party co-chairman Oliver Dowden said there was no need to panic buy toys or anything else before Christmas. This message was repeated by Chancellor Rishi Sunak in the US yesterday.
But the boss of The Entertainer store chain said sales of some expensive toys are already running at the levels expected immediately before Christmas.
These include the Barbie Day to Night Dreamhouse Playset, at £249.99, and the Barbie 3-in-1 Dreamcamper Playset, £83.99.
Figures from retail analysts Kantar show sales of games and puzzles are up by 15.3 per cent, baby toys by 10.8 per cent and gift wrapping products by 9.3 per cent (pictured, Hamleys)
Lego has seen a sales boom through the pandemic but analysts have warned of shortages of some sets. Stocks of big brands such as L.O.L. Surprise!, Baby Annabell and Sylvanian Families are also under pressure.
Sales of cosmetic gift sets over the past four weeks are up by 128 per cent on the same period last year, with the figure for mixed beauty sets some 64 per cent higher.
Figures from retail analysts Kantar show sales of games and puzzles are up by 15.3 per cent, baby toys by 10.8 per cent and gift wrapping products by 9.3 per cent.
The Entertainer along with other retailers have suffered delays in deliveries due to disruption at the UK’s biggest container ship port, Felixstowe.
Thousands of containers are sitting at Felixstowe and other ports because there are not enough drivers to collect them.
As a result, the firms who own these shipments are being hit with penalty fees by the ports.
Transport sources have declared that the fuel crisis which gripped the country at the start of this month, was now ‘over’.
A source said that all regions, including the worst-affected areas of London and the South East, were now at ‘average stock levels’.
However, military drivers are expected to continue assisting in the short term as a ‘precaution’.