Undercutting German Willi Betz the bête noire of British hauliers

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The lorry drivers at the heart of last week's fuel protests are blaming a reclusive East German businessman for the crisis in the British haulage trade.

The lorry drivers at the heart of last week's fuel protests are blaming a reclusive East German businessman for the crisis in the British haulage trade.

Willie Betz, they say, is as much to blame as Tony Blair and the leaders of the Opec oil producing nations.

Betz is known as the "German Eddie Stobart" and his lorries are as familiar on British motorways as they are on continental highways.

But while drivers here earn £550 a week, they say Betz has crippled British lorry firms by using cheap East European labour at less than half the cost, paying drivers as little as £165 for a full week's work.

Last week the pickets had nothing but angry words for their fellow haulier, a wealthy East German who has shunned publicity ever since an earlier assassination attempt.

British haulage was already in trouble before the recent rises in the price of fuel. Figures released last week show that 1,850 British haulage companies have failed in the last two years, more than in the rest of the 1990s put together.

In contrast, Willi Betz is doing very well, picking up 20 per cent of all export loads offered on the British haulage market.

The business tactics of the ageing Herr Betz and the haulage dynasty he has created with his sons are being investigated by European transport commissioners. But so far, their conclusion is that he is legally exploiting loopholes with the help of skillful employment lawyers.

His empire, which boasts subsidiaries across Europe, was founded on early business links with Russia then, when the Berlin Wall came down, he set his sights on Western Europe.

The Conservative party has suggested that foreign operators should be charged for using British roads in the same way that British drivers have to pay tolls on abroad. Labour has yet to respond to these proposals.

For British drivers, Willi Betz is a reminder of how uneven the market is for them.

"All we asking for is a level playing field," said Terry Johncocks who spent much of this week protesting outside the oil terminal at Coryton in Essex. He owns and drives a seven-week-old £58,000 DAF unit.

Lou Thurgood, a 68-year-old owner driver, agreed. "Willi Betz people are basing themselves here and undercutting the market because their overheads are lower.

"The foreign drivers fill up with 1500 litres of cheap fuel over the other side and they can work for a week to ten days. Then they back over to Belgium or France and refill," said Martin Husk, a Dover based haulier.

According to the hauliers, derv in Belgium costs 28p a litre compared to 72 per litre here.

Ian Gordon, another Kent haulier, bitterly complained about the growing number of European drivers coming over to Britain each week to work.

"They can come on the ferry at Dover with a full tank of derv and drive all over the place before going back to the Continent for a refill," he said.

The hauliers say that adverse British laws and taxes make it easy for Europeans to compete against British hauliers in the UK.

"Last week I was in a motorway services area and I counted 64 lorries parked there. Only 17 were British," said Mr Johncock.