Retailers bracing for panic food buying as truck strike begins

Posted by Daniel Palmer on 28th July 2008

The planned two-week national truck stoppage, which began at midnight, has already led to panic amongst some consumers but appears unlikely to lead to major food supply shortages.

Mick Pattell, a spokesman from the National Road Transport Forum – one of the organisers of the shutdown, hopes the public gets behind truck drivers and is keen for government action. “Hopefully the government will come to the table fairly quickly and not allow this to happen to the public,” he said, according to the ABC. “We’ve really got to do this to highlight the plight of this industry. One of the things that has come to our attention is that [sales] through the big multinational stores has exceeded Christmas time levels, so people are stocking up and getting ready for it.”

John Cummings, Chairman of the WA Independent Grocers Association and President of NARGA (National Association of Retail Grocers Australia), has urged consumers not to get carried away by reports of a shortage and does not think the impact will be too extensive. “Don’t panic buy,” he told the ABC. “I believe that there will be some sensibility that will come into the market place, that there will be some supply of product. You might find isolated instances where there are short supplies for a short period of time but I don’t believe that we are going to go into a food shortage.”

The greatest impact is likely to be felt in Queensland, although there is considerable confusion regarding how expansive the shutdown will be.

The organisers, who are based in Queensland, were initially hoping for 80 per cent of drivers to stop working but have since revised that figure to 60 per cent. The Australian Trucking Association (ATA) has disputed this claim, and are not anticipating significant disruptions.

Reports today suggest that it is business as usual in many areas, although there have been stop-work meetings in most capital cities. Following the meeting in Perth the two-week stoppage was called off in the state, with a protest to Parliament House in Perth to be held in its’ place. Additionally, a “go-slow” was held in Brisbane this morning by a convoy of trucks, which brought traffic close to a standstill in some sections.

In response to the stoppage Woolworths and Coles have taken the precautionary step of increasing stockpiles of some fresh food items in their distribution centres. “It certainly has the potential to cause some inconvenience. In some cases we do have some extra stock in certain products and lines,” Woolworths spokesman Luke Schepen admitted to the Courier Mail. Similarly, some independent grocers and wholesalers have also increased their stock on hand in case there are shortages.

Leading industry body, the ATA, and the Transport Workers Union of Australia are not in support of the strike and are instead keen to continue talking to the government regarding their concerns about low pay rates, rising fuel costs and new fatigue laws. “… the best way we can deal with those concerns is to talk directly to the state and federal governments,” ATA Chairman Trevor Martyn advised. “The ATA is standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the vast majority of Australia’s truck drivers and trucking companies, who will be working as usual.”

The ATA was critical of the proposed shutdown as they believed it had been “tainted by the threat of violence”, following a message which warned truck drivers to join the strike. “…desperate people do desperate things… so to ensure your own safety please DON’T KEEP DRIVING,” it reportedly said.

Peter Garske, Chief Executive Officer of the Queensland Trucking Association, has also condemned the strike action and believes most truck drivers could not afford to stop working for two weeks. “It is difficult to identify the support behind certain individuals who purport to speak on behalf of sections of our industry. These fractured organisations when not openly criticising each other publish ever increasing demands on Governments and others which clearly display an ignorance of the Government regulatory process,” he said. “The Industry is going through a most difficult period coping with fuel prices dictated by decision makers on the other side of the world, significant shortages of skilled drivers and a slowing economy which will directly and adversely impact on the size of the freight task. There would not be an operator in Australia who could afford to park up a truck for any period and deliberately deny themselves cash flow, income and viability.”

One of the transport company owners, Peter Schuback of Queensland’s Hervey Bay, last week insinuated that shops would run out of food within three days if the industry was to collapse. However, the lack of support from the leading industry unions and reports that business appears to be running close to normal in most areas, highlight that the impact on food supplies is unlikely to be too drastic.