Union chiefs are said to be preparing strike action for British HGV drivers after ministers backed plans to make it more attractive for foreign hauliers to work in the UK.
British businesses are said to be ‘appalled’ by Government-backed plans to allow overseas drivers make ‘unlimited journeys at low rates’ to combat shortages and save Christmas.
They say the move risks British labour being ‘undercut’ by cheaper foreign companies as national union Unite prepares to discuss potential strike action with hauliers, reports The Times.
In desperate efforts to plug the gaps amid a national driver shortage, the government have agreed to a relaxation in ‘cabotage’ rules – which currently limit EU-based companies to making a maximum of two trips in the UK within a week.
But Rod McKenzie, managing director at the Road Haulage Association, warned ministers would be allowing firms from abroad ‘do unlimited work at low rates, undercutting UK hauliers who are facing an acute driver shortage, rising costs and staff wages’.
Sharon Graham, Unite’s new leader whose trade body was accused of ‘holding Christmas hostage’, added that the treatment of British drivers was ‘nothing short of a disgrace’.
The news comes just days after thousands of supermarket and delivery drivers were to be consulted over a mass walkout – the largest strike threat of its kind since the notorious Winter of Discontent more than 40 years ago.
British businesses are said to be ‘appalled’ by Government-backed plans to allow overseas drivers make ‘unlimited journeys at low rates’ to combat shortages and save Christmas [File picture]
Consumers have already faced barren supermarket shelves while shopping in major UK retailers, but could see more if the industrial action goes ahead
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.
Mr McKenzie told BBC R4’s Today programme that any agreement to allow foreign firms unlimited access across the UK could ‘sabotage’ British businesses.
He said: ‘I spoke to some of our members last night and they were appalled, ridiculous, pathetic, gobsmacked.
‘This is about taking work from British operators and drivers and giving it to Europeans who don’t pay tax here and pay peanuts to their drivers.
‘The government has been talking about a high wage, high skill economy and not pulling the level marked uncontrolled immigration and to them this is exactly what it looks like.’
This week, families were warned to start shopping for Christmas now amid fears that supplies of toys, electrical goods and other products will be disrupted by the logjams at UK ports.
Retail leaders say the shortage of HGV drivers to carry loads from docks around the coast is threatening festivities and the wider economy.
Meanwhile, unions are said to be discussing the potential for industrial action. The government has played down the impact of any strike.
Sharon Graham said: ‘Britain’s drivers kept the nation moving during the worst crisis in living memory. It’s time for employers to pay workers a proper rate for the job.
‘Enough is enough. Unite will be consulting its members before deciding on the next steps, including exploring the options for industrial action.’
Unite’s new leader Sharon Graham (pictured) has promised to operate ‘on the edge of the law’ to protect members’ rights
Containers are stacking up at Felixstowe, Britain’s biggest container port, in yet another pre-Christmas crisis emerging as it is taking ten days instead of five for each one to be moved due to a lack of HGV drivers and port staff
Ikea and Nestle are among the huge businesses that say their products are being snarled up due to a lack of HGV drivers that is hitting all parts of British life
But Transport Secretary Grant Shapps downplayed any threat of strike action looming over the winter period, as MailOnline understands Unite’s representation in the haulier industry sits at around 15 per cent of all drivers.
He told the BBC: ‘We’re not in the 70s where there was a big unionised block of lorry drivers.’
It comes after comments from the head of the British Port Association explained a lack of HGV drivers had caused deliveries to slow down at Britain’s busiest ports.
Richard Ballantyne, chief executive of the British Port Association said haulier shortages had meant goods were ‘sitting around longer than you expect’ in Britain’s ports.
He added: ‘The lack of haulage isn’t stopping ports from doing things, it’s just slowing things down at the moment.
‘It’s a big problem across the board, not just in the container sector as we’ve seen this week but also the roll-on roll-off – where trailers are dropped at ports and collected by domestic drivers.
‘We’re now also seeing a bit of an impact in the bulk sector. It’s not a major problem at the moment, but it could be, so we’re supporting some of the moves government are making to make it easier for people to come in an drive.’
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
Mr Ballantyne also appeared to back the Government’s drive to loosen cabotage restrictions, describing it as ‘quite a helpful move’.
He added: ‘I know some domestic hauliers in UK are nervous about this, but in terms of having overall resource in Britain, we do like that. Coupled with other factors, immigration visas and the relaxation of driver’s hours.
‘But it’s important to say these are not long term solutions, government and industry need to look at ways to attract new and young people into the sector.’
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.