Strike threat leads to panic buying at UK petrol stations

Fri, Mar 30, 2012, 01:00

PETROL AND diesel supplies could run low in many parts of Britain from today following panic buying by drivers who heeded calls led British prime minister David Cameron to keep their tanks half- full because of the threat of a strike by tanker drivers.

Police closed some petrol stations in Dorset and other parts of England because queues were causing traffic difficulties.

There are fears that many petrol stations, which already keep lower stocks than they used to, will be unable to get supplies if they run out.

Continuing the disarray that has marked Downing Street’s handling of the crisis over the past 48 hours, senior ministers withdrew an instruction to drivers to store petrol at home in jerrycans, describing it as a mistake.

There are deep concerns that filling stations will run out of petrol and diesel over the next 24 hours because of excessive demand – even before the 2,000 tanker drivers issue a formal seven-day strike notice.

The drivers, who are employed by contractors, argue that their working conditions are being systematically undermined by oil companies and major retailers such as Tesco in three- to five-yearly negotiations with haulage companies.

Drivers at five of the seven main hauliers have voted overwhelmingly for strike action, with the Unite union careful to publish the voting figures – following legal challenges to a number of planned strikes in the UK in the past year.

They complain that wages are being squeezed, along with more frequent penalties for delayed deliveries, while guaranteed defined benefit pensions have been lost. Health and safety standards have fallen too, they argue, though no examples have been offered.

The main hauliers are resisting demands for national pay bargaining for the drivers. There is also opposition to Unite’s demand for a national regulator to govern training, health and safety, and working conditions.

No date has been set for industrial action. There are fears that it could disrupt the Easter holidays, but Unite would have to issue a seven-day strike notice today for that to occur. Workers will have to strike by April 23rd or face having to vote again.

Owners of small filling stations argue that the crisis could be worse than the blockade led by farmers in 2000 over fuel prices because the number of forecourts has dropped significantly in the face of competition from Tesco and other major retailers.

“Prior to the fuel blockade in September 2000, there were approximately 14,500 forecourts. But by the end of 2011 less than 8,500 were still open. With 6,000 fewer forecourts holding refined stock, the overall road fuel stock level across the UK may have fallen by as much as 40 per cent,” said the Retail Motor Industry group.

Meanwhile, higher fuel prices have forced many petrol stations to cut the amount held in tanks, because each tanker delivery costs £55,000 (€66,000).

“Overall, refined stock levels at UK forecourts have probably never been lower,” the group said.

Last month, Retail Motor Industry demanded that the UK office of fair trading carry out an investigation into “predatory pricing” by the supermarkets, though the office has yet to make a decision on the papers lodged.

The British government has ordered that RAF and British army drivers who already hold a driving licence for heavy-goods vehicles should be trained to drive petrol tankers, though that would take a minimum of eight days.

“Whilst this is potentially welcome it has been proposed without any prior consultation with industry. Just 300 army drivers cannot possibly replace 2,000 striking civilian drivers,” said Retail Motor Industry, which added that all filling stations had to comply with strict health and safety standards.

It urged its members to carry out a formal risk assessment before permitting access to any new third-party tanker drivers.