Effects of Felixstowe Strike Reach Beyond Local Delays

File image courtesy Port of Felixstowe

Published Aug 22, 2022 9:04 PM by The Maritime Executive

The dockers' strike at the Port of Felixstowe could have additional effects on the supply chain, beyond short-term shortages for British shoppers and businesses. According to liner experts, cargo diversions could add to congestion at key hub ports in Europe, empties may build up in the UK market, and the extra delays could raise theft claims due to the vulnerability of cargo stuck in long-term storage. 

Unite, the union representing dockers at Felixstowe, acknowledges that the strike will create inconveniences for the flow of goods in the UK. "The supply chain will be severely disrupted, I accept that. That's one of the unfortunate parts of things like this," Unite national officer Robert Morton told Britain's Sky News. "If we don't achieve what we're trying to achieve, there will be more strikes."

That disruption could last a while. According to digital forwarder Flexport, the eight-day strike will create a backlog that will take more than three weeks to clear. In the meantime, the major carriers will cancel calls at the UK's biggest container port and send the affected cargo to other terminals - primarily on the continent. This has happened before: Maersk diverted services away from Felixstowe during a software-driven slowdown at the port in 2018, and again during a trucker shortage in October 2021. 

This time, Maersk is omitting three calls during the strike and offloading the cargo in Le Havre, London Gateway and Antwerp. Other carriers are making similar arrangements using contingency plans prepared well in advance. The cargo discharged in Le Havre, Antwerp or Rotterdam will be held until after the strike has ended, then loaded onto Felixstowe-bound ships for delivery - but in the meantime, it will have to wait in port, taking up space. This could "further worsen existing congestion problems on the continent as well," according to liner consultant Lars Jensen of Vespucci Maritime.

While the cargo is waiting, it's vulnerable to theft, notes Danny Ramon, Intelligence and Response Manager at supply chain risk management firm Overhaul.

"When chokepoints in the supply chain overflow, it creates logjams of stationary freight. When freight is not moving, it is at greater risk for theft. The most likely scenario is that freight will back up at the port itself and in nearby staging areas, providing dense targets," Ramon advised. "With the prolific nature of soft sided trailers in the UK, gridlocked over-the-road freight in terminals near the seaport will also be soft targets."

As in other situations where ports get backlogged - like the bottleneck at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach earlier this year - the accumulation of empties may also put a drag on operations for an extended period.

"Critically, empties throughout the UK will begin to clog the supply chain as they have nowhere to go. It’s one thing to pay a bit more to get your product to your customers, but to pay more to move and store empty containers full of nothing is quite a different thing," says George Kochanowski, CEO of foldable-container startup Staxxon.