Dockers striking at Britain’s largest container port have said they are relying on food banks and struggling to make mortgage payments as the cost-of-living crisis intensifies.
Almost 2,000 workers walked out from the site in Felixstowe, Suffolk, on Sunday for the first time in 30 years as pay negotiations broke down between the port and trade union Unite.
In scenes which some compared to a party, strikers gathered on a roundabout near the port on Monday to call for a 10% pay rise, which would keep wages roughly in line with inflation.
However, the Port of Felixstowe has said salaries are significantly above the national average, and is instead offering a 7% boost plus a payment of £500.
With impromptu karaoke breaking out and protesters grilling burgers, the mood at the picket line appeared upbeat.
However, Lucky Singh, a stevedore of almost two decades who led strikers in a performance of Sweet Caroline, said everyone was worried about spiralling costs.
“There are some angry people here,” he told the PA news agency.
“The company has given us all a good living and I won’t knock the company … but at the moment we have a situation that we need to get resolved.
“I’m scared. It’s scary because at the end of the day I have a mortgage to pay like everyone else, I’ve got bills.”
A tug driver, who declined to be named, said he had been feeding his children from a food bank as the situation got “worse and worse and worse by the minute”.
“I’m now down to like £4 in my bank account this week, but we’ve got shoes to buy, a school uniform to buy,” he added.
The man, who has worked at Felixstowe since the early 2000s, said he was torn between taking extra shifts and taking care of his wife, who is recovering from an operation.
“Sometimes I get offered the overtime but I can’t actually physically do it because I’m needed elsewhere … and it’s such a hard balance,” he said.
“Do I go to work and earn X amount of pounds extra? Or do I stay at home and look after my wife and kids?”
Unite general secretary Sharon Graham has previously said that Felixstowe docks is “enormously profitable” making £61 million in profits in 2020 and its parent CK Hutchison Holding Ltd handed £99 million to its shareholders that year.
Phil Pemberton, who has worked at the docks for almost three decades, said: “We would like to feel that the company values us as much as they value their shareholders.
“I’m of the age where retirement isn’t too far away. I’m looking at it and saying, ‘where is the money coming from for us to live on a day-to-day basis and be able to start saving a little bit for retirement?’”
Drivers approaching the picket line seemed supportive of the strikers, with several raising their fists or waving as they passed by.
At one point, Mr Singh drove laps around the roundabout, blasting his horn while red Unite flags streamed out of both windows.
The roundabout is just across the road from a McDonald’s – a “godsend”, according to Unite regional organiser Miles Hubbard.
“It’s great because we can get coffee all the time, it’s perfect,” he said.
Mr Hubbard hit back at the port after its head of corporate affairs claimed Unite was acting undemocratically by not offering members a vote on the 7% pay rise.
“They’re being disingenuous in order to make it look as though the union is being unreasonable,” he said.
“We know, because we talk to our members, that they would not be happy.
“The company’s trying to suggest it’s obligatory on us to ballot for every suggestion they make in a negotiation. Nobody ever thought that was the case.”
A Port of Felixstowe spokesman said Unite had let employees down by rejecting its pay rise, said to be worth between 8.1% and 9.6% this year.
He said “very many” workers wanted to accept the offer and return but were scared of crossing the picket line.