Supermarket supplies over Easter could be in doubt after DHL staff at Sainsbury's Dartford distribution centre are threatening to go on strike.

More than 350 DHL staff are being balloted for industrial action after one of their Unite representatives was given a "completely unjustified' suspension for what the union says was representing a member of staff.

The Dartford Sainsbury’s regional distribution ballot was called after a Unite steward, who was providing support to a member of staff during an investigation hearing, was suspended for challenging a DHL managers’ version of events, according to the union.

The reason given for the suspension by the manager was that the Unite steward was being aggressive – "an accusation flatly contradicted by a neutral member of staff who was present at the meeting as a third party."

A Sainsbury’s spokesman said: “We are monitoring the situation very closely and encourage both sides to keep talking.

"We can reassure customers that we have contingency plans in place to minimise any disruption this may cause.”

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Unite said the ballot comes after a number of incidents of attempted ‘union busting’ at DHL sites across the country.

Unite regional officer Phil Silkstone said: “DHL HGV drivers, clerks and warehouse operatives at Sainsbury’s Dartford warehouse are being balloted for industrial action.

“Sainsbury’s will not be pleased to learn they are facing potential disruption to their supply chain in the run up to the Easter period, which will affect the availability of chocolate eggs and other Easter provisions, because of DHL’s anti-union agenda.

“The baseless accusation of aggression by a single manager used to carry out the suspension has been flatly contradicted by a neutral staff member who was present at the meeting. Unfortunately, the suspension is the not the first instance at the Sainsbury’s site where union members have been targeted.

“An attack on one is an attack on all and our DHL Dartford members are keenly aware that should this be allowed to stand it will herald further attempts to erode employment standards and worker protections at the site.

“Unite would much prefer an amicable relationship with DHL and does not want to witness empty shelves at Sainsbury’s stores, so we urge the company to see sense, get around the table and revoke this unfounded suspension.”

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A spokesman for DHL Supply Chain said the company was "disappointed" with the threat of strike action at the site near Dartford Crossing.

"As ever, we remain willing to work with the union to reach a satisfactory outcome for both parties, but contingency plans are being drawn up to minimise any impact on deliveries should the action go ahead.”

Unite believes the deterioration of industrial relations is linked to DHL’s management ‘testing the waters during the uncertainty of the pandemic to see if union activity, and the protections it affords staff, can be weakened’.

The union said that in December, police were called "at least 10 times" by managers to a peaceful picket line in Croxeth, Liverpool.

DHL union reps have also been targeted or disregarded at other sites in Halewood, Merseyside, and Solihull, West Midlands, in recent weeks, they added.

Unite national officer Matt Draper said: "A recent change in the management structure at DHL has led to a number of worrying incidents at different sites where union reps and staff have been targeted. Before this recent trend of attempted union busting, Unite had, on the whole, a constructive relationship with DHL.

“We believe the breakdown in industrial relations is due to a new approach by management, who seem to be testing the waters during the uncertainty of the pandemic to see if union activity, and the protections it affords to staff, can be weakened.

“To our members this can only be seen as a prelude to attempts erode pay, terms and conditions. DHL's national leadership should be aware that Unite will under no circumstances let this happen. We urge the company to press reset so both the union and the company can go back to working productively for the best interests of staff.”