Tesco staff strikes could lead to empty shelves this Christmas, union warns

By Henry Sandercock
Tuesday, 7th December 2021, 2:25 pm
Updated Tuesday, 7th December 2021, 2:30 pm
Unite the union has accused Tesco of offering a “derisory” pay increase to its members (image: PA)
Unite the union has accused Tesco of offering a “derisory” pay increase to its members (image: PA)

Shoppers at some Tesco stores could be set to experience empty shelves and have deliveries cancelled this Christmas after workers at the supermarket voted for strike action.

Workers, including staff and lorry drivers at the retailer’s key Scotland distribution hub at Livingston, are staging the industrial action as part of a dispute over pay.

It means Tesco customers could be set for disruption in what is usually the busiest period of the year for supermarkets.

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But it would not be the first time consumers have had to contend with empty shelves in 2021.

All supermarkets have faced problems with their supply chains due to the knock on impacts of Brexit and Covid-19, including a shortage of HGV drivers.

Product availability has also been hampered by the CO2 supply crisis, while major brand Walkers has been in short supply in recent weeks due to issues with a new IT system.

Why have Tesco staff voted to strike?

The pay dispute between Tesco and its warehouse staff - who are being represented by Unite the union - has been prompted by a “derisory” recent pay increase offer the supermarket was said by Unite to have made.

The union said its members opted to vote for strike action because the retailer’s proposed 4% pay rise was “well below” the current retail price index (RPI) inflation rate of 6%.

The consumer prices index (CPI) currently sits at 4.2%.

Tesco warehouse workers and HGV drivers are set to disrupt the retailer’s Christmas period (image: PA)

It means that workers are preparing to walk out on 20 December and not return before Christmas.

Further industrial action is also set to take place at Tesco depots based in Antrim and Belfast in Northern Ireland, as well as Didcot and Doncaster in England, from 16 December.

The English sites are then planning to hold another strike over the new year period.

What they said

Unite’s general secretary Sharon Graham said: “Tesco is a multibillion pound profitable company built on the back of our members.

“We are talking about the UK’s largest and wealthiest retailer, and the best they offer their workers who have gone above and beyond the call of duty during the pandemic is a real-terms pay cut.

“Unite always prioritises the jobs, pay and conditions of its members and it will be giving its full support to our members based in Livingston until this dispute is resolved.”

Members of the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (Usdaw) have also come out in favour of the strike, with workers of the union set to take action at the same time as their Unite colleagues.

All supermarkets have been forced to contend with empty shelves throughout 2021 (image: PA)

Usdaw’s national officer Joanne McGuinness said the “industrial action and possible stock shortages in stores in the week before Christmas can be avoided”, but that it needed Tesco “to engage positively in talks”.

A Tesco spokesperson said: “Our distribution colleagues have worked tirelessly through the pandemic in order to keep products moving for customers.

“The pay offer we have made is a fair recognition of this, and is one of the highest awards made within our distribution business in the last 25 years, building on our highly competitive pay and rewards package.

“We welcome the decision by our colleagues at the sites who have voted against industrial action.

“We are disappointed that some have voted to proceed, and we have contingency plans in place to help mitigate any impacts. We have worked hard to deliver Christmas for our customers and are confident we will be able to fulfil our plans.”

More Christmas woe for consumers?

The news that the UK’s biggest supermarket could be facing empty shelves has come as figures compiled by data analytics firm Kantar showed the price of a traditional Christmas turkey dinner has risen by 3.4% due to rocketing inflation.

It said the average cost of a Christmas meal for four, with a frozen turkey and all the trimmings, is now £27.48.

It comes as wider grocery inflation has leapt 3.2% year-on-year in the four weeks to November 28 – the highest rate since June last year.

The traditional Christmas dinner has risen in price (image: Shutterstock)

But Kantar’s data has also suggested people in the UK are not tightening their purse strings ahead of the festive season, with sales of supermarket own-label premium lines, such as Tesco Finest and Asda Extra Special, the fastest growing product ranges in stores.

“As we count down on our advent calendars to the big day, it’s clear that shoppers want to have some fun and make this Christmas extra special,” said head of retail and consumer insight at Kantar, Fraser McKevitt.

“Price inflation doesn’t seem to be denting their desire to treat themselves and loved ones.”

He added that consumer behaviour “hasn’t caught up” with rising food price inflation.

“Habits we’d expect to see shift, like swapping branded products for own label or seeking out promotions, haven’t altered just yet.”

Overall, Kantar found overall supermarket sales dropped 3.8% to £29.6bn in the 12 weeks to 28 November compared to the previous year, when the second coronavirus lockdown restrictions boosted grocery trade.

The average shop size has also shrunk by 8% versus last year due to people returning to offices and heading out to restaurants and cafes again, the data revealed.

But grocery spending remained 7% up against pre-pandemic levels during the time period.

Additional reporting by PA