Portugal is in the midst of a fuel crisis, engineered by a nationwide strike of truck drivers who are demanding better wages for the hours they put behind the wheel. The strike, which began on August 12, is expected to be on indefinitely until the conditions put forth by the driver unions are met.
In the runup to the strike, Portuguese authorities had pushed a civil order asking truck drivers to cooperate by delivering enough fuel to the gas stations and airports to make sure they do not run out in the middle of the high tourism season. Though truck drivers were instructed to supply gas stations with fuel that filled at least 50 percent of their capacity, the situation looks to be quite dire, with roughly 3,000 gas stations either empty or nearly out of fuel.
Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa has assured the country that the government will take all possible legal measures to make sure supplies do not run out, even as he declared a “state of crisis” because of the truckers’ strike. Costa pointed out that in the worst-case scenario, the police and the National Guard would be asked to make sure the supplies get moving to keep the lifelines intact across the country.
True to that, shortly after the civil request was put forth, the military had lined up at the Sines refinery south of Lisbon to relay trucks loaded with fuel to help regions that were suffering from a lack of fuel in their gas stations.
The Sines refinery runs between 60 to 70 trucks every day, but fewer were reported to have gone through the refinery on Monday, August 12, and those were primarily driven by soldiers. “In the morning, there were about five or six gasoline and diesel trucks and many more natural gas trucks. In the afternoon, there were no trucks,” said Lusa Carlos Bonito, the coordinator of the Southern Union of the United States. The police and the military have been hard at work, making fuel deliveries to around 500 of the country’s 3,000 gas stations that were in immediate need for respite.
Anticipating the shortage in fuel supply, the Portuguese government had announced an “energy emergency” last week – possibly after learning from its mistakes in handling a similar crisis in April, when truck driver unions went on strike for the same cause. However, the April strike was called off during the salary negotiations, which ultimately were not successful. That led the unions to announce an indefinite strike now.
Though the government has issued a civil order, driver unions are believed to be disregarding the requirement. “Unions are preparing to default on a government request for minimum services. That’s obvious. That’s why they are not providing the list of workers so that companies can then allocate these workers to provide it [fuel],” said Andre Matias de Almeida, from the National Association of Public Road Freight Transporters.
The unions have said that they are unable to furnish details of available workers, and that though they will comply with the government’s demands, the government cannot expect them to work for more than eight hours a day. This would clearly not be enough, as truck drivers in Portugal spend nearly double that time on the road, leading to the expected breakdown in logistics.
The unions’ demands have been to increase the base monthly salary from €630 to €900 by 2022. However, drivers do earn much more than their current base salaries; most also receive subsidies, allowances and supplements from their employers.
Apart from impacting the tourism industry, the strike will also impact the supplies available at supermarkets and grocery stores across the country, as truck strikes mean reduced movement of freight. The issue has also spilled over the border, with Portuguese drivers lining up in Spanish gas stations, hoping to fill their tanks to last the length of the strike.