Dockers at Felixstowe are planning eight days of strike action over pay that could cause serious disruption to the UK’s largest container port.
Nearly 1,900 workers plan to stop work for more than a week at the Hong Kong-owned port, starting on Sunday 21 August and ending on Monday 29 August, according to the union Unite. The workers voted 92% in favour of strike action last week.
The union said the latest round of talks with the company at Acas, the conciliation service, had failed to yield a “reasonable offer”, but further talks are planned for Monday.
Prolonged strikes would almost certainly disrupt traffic through the port, adding to the problems facing the UK economy as it braces for a deep, year-long recession.
Felixstowe, on the Suffolk coast, handles the equivalent of 4m 20-ft shipping containers every year from about 2,000 ships – including some of the very largest container ships ever made. It is the eighth-largest container port in Europe, according to the EU statistics agency, Eurostat.
The port employs 2,500 people overall. Unite said the loss of the majority of its workforce, including crane drivers, machine operators and stevedores (responsible for unloading ships) would have a “huge effect” on the UK’s supply chains. However, a source at the port said a strike would not mean shutting it completely.
The pay dispute is the latest in a series of problems to hit UK transport infrastructure. Travellers through Dover also suffered massive queues last month when the port failed to cope with high numbers of holidaymakers after the end of term for many schools in England and Wales.
Workers and train drivers on Great Britain’s railways have also gone on several strikes, with further action planned on two days over the next fortnight.
Unite said it had rejected an offer from the employer, Felixstowe Dock and Railway Company, of a 7% pay increase. The union said it was below the 11.8% retail prices index (RPI) rate of inflation, its preferred measure, and that workers received a below-inflation 1.4% pay increase last year. Company figures suggest the average pay of the workers involved is £43,000 annually.
Felixstowe is ultimately owned by the Hong Kong-based CK Hutchison Holdings, a conglomerate controlling 52 ports around the world, handling the equivalent of 88m 20-ft containers. It also owns a series of other businesses operating in the UK, ranging from the retailers Superdrug and The Perfume Shop, the Three mobile network, and water and energy companies.
Unite’s general secretary, Sharon Graham, said: “Felixstowe docks and its parent company, CK Hutchison Holdings Ltd, are both massively profitable and incredibly wealthy. They are fully able to pay the workforce a fair day’s pay.
“The company has prioritised delivering multimillion-pound dividends rather than paying its workers a decent wage.”
Unite pointed to dividend payments made by the Felixstowe Dock and Railway Company to its owners. The dividends were worth £100m in 2020 and £42m in 2021, according to company accounts.
The company’s profits before tax rose to £78m in 2021, up more than 25% from the £61m it made the year before.
A company spokesperson said: “We understand our employees’ concerns at the rising cost of living and are determined to do all we can to help while continuing to invest in the port’s success. Discussions are ongoing and the company’s latest position in negotiations is an enhanced pay increase of 7%.
“The port has not had a strike since 1989 and we are disappointed that the union has served notice of industrial action while talks are ongoing. The port provides secure and well-paid employment and there will be no winners from industrial action.”