By Alex Meredith – Regular Contributor
If you have been to a local supermarket recently and witnessed empty shelves, found that your local Nando’s has been closed due to no chicken, or McDonalds running out of Milkshakes, that has most likely been down to a supply chain issue caused by a lack of HGV drivers. As Britain and elsewhere continued to emerge from Covid restrictions altogether, so did the reality of this shortage and the consequence that it created. Whilst there have been some conflating figures recently, the Road Haulage Association had put the shortage of drivers to be at around 100,000. This impact has also recently spread to fuel too, with an initial report that BP closed a few of its 1,200 petrol stations due to a lack of drivers to supply the fuel (although fuel itself was in no short supply), had soon spread throughout the media that there could be a widespread fuel shortage in the UK. This led to Brits in their millions panic buying fuel, with many reporting that dozens of petrol stations they drove past had completely run out as a result. There was a massive backlog of cars queuing, with scenes emerging of people filling up jerry can after jerry can of fuel, on top of fuelling their cars, even if they already had enough fuel within their tanks to last them a while.
Yet despite the subsequent fuel shortage that followed being largely self-inflicted by the panic buying, many media outlets and ordinary individuals instantly blamed Brexit for the issue, citing the new immigration policy that has replaced free movement, which has resulted in a points-based system favouring migrants with high skills. As a result, many have argued that this has been the main cause of the supply issue as EU citizens can no longer come here to do these jobs. In addition, the UK leaving the single market and customs union, along with the ending of cabotage, resulting in some disruption to cross border trade is argued to have played a role too, but this doesn’t wash as much when the UK government is yet to introduce full import checks on goods entering Britain from the EU, which in some way demonstrates the lack of planning as a whole on this issue, not just from this government but also from that under Theresa May as well, given the inevitable shift in the domestic labour market that would emerge as a result of changes to immigration laws that the EU referendum result demonstrated would happen given the rhetoric from leave supporters during and before the campaign. Furthermore, it does not explain the EU having a driver shortage of 400,000, 124,000 in Poland alone for example, or further afield in the US who are having to recruit drivers from South Africa to deal with their shortages.
There is a much more underlying issue that explains the underlying cause of the shortage of HGV drivers that is only now beginning to be properly addressed. Up until very recently, the salary that a driver would earn was roughly around eleven pounds an hour, which for the most part has been caused by companies and businesses opting for cheaper foreign labour from abroad (especially since the early 2000’s), meaning they could be paid less, and thus undercut the wages for native British workers, so that profits could be maintained and raised. This perhaps explains why most large corporations supported Britain remaining in the EU during the referendum campaign. Free movement laws meant they had access to roughly half a billion people that could come over and be willing to work for less money, which was more appealing to these businesses than employing native workers who would want to be paid more. Now that freedom of movement no longer applies to Britain, these companies no longer have direct access to foreign labour, meaning that native workers are now in a stronger bargaining position to demand better pay and working conditions within these roles. In addition, since the pandemic took hold in early 2020, many EU citizens left Britain to return home to stay with their families during lockdowns, and many Brits who were previously working within this industry had found a new and more appealing job to go to instead, which further increased the shortage.
Covid disruption has also contributed significantly to the HGV driver shortage too. The several national and regional lockdowns that took place meant the cancellation of driving tests and licencing renewal (despite the deadline for that being extended) for HGV drivers by the DVLA that would have otherwise taken place normally, meaning that potential new qualified drivers were unable to take up this position and thus help to ease the shortage. The DVLA is currently experiencing a backlog of 54,000 which has been exacerbated by recent strike action, social distancing laws, and working from home, on top of what previously cancelled tests owing to past lockdowns had created. This matter therefore also needs to be acknowledged and addressed when assessing the HGV driver shortage as a whole
To understand this driver shortfall further and for what needs to be done for the future to reverse this shortage and prevent such an event from happening again, it is essential to understand and acknowledge the overall conditions that HGV drivers had and currently experience within their daily roles, to determine why many more drivers retired from the position altogether, much more so than those who have entered it recently. Firstly, even with the increased pay and bonuses because of companies having less access to foreign labour, the conditions that existed before will not go away anytime soon without being properly addressed, and the substantial pay rises for lorry drivers by themselves will not deal with why many people have left this industry altogether for alternative, better jobs. To begin with, drivers are away from home for uncertain and often lengthy periods of time, which means if they have a family, it results in less time being spent with them to be spent alone instead. At night drivers often find themselves having to park their lorries on a sideroad to sleep in their uncomfortable singular cabin, with the potential for being mugged or attacked, or even having their lorries broken into and goods stolen being a major issue to constantly think about. There is also limited but poor-quality access to wash and toilet facilities for drivers, and they also rely primarily on service station food, most of which is of low quality and thus bad for their overall physical and mental health and wellbeing. All of this added to the fact that most HGV drivers are in their late fifties, thus nearing retirement age, meanwhile younger people have not come forward for this role in any high numbers to replace the increasing resigning workforce, most likely due to the unattractive working conditions that present themselves as a clear deterrent to those seeking employment.
Whilst the pay rise for HGV drivers and other lower skilled workers due to labour changes is a great start, the overall issue regarding working conditions for these types of jobs must also be properly addressed and dealt with, in order to not only prevent any major shortage like this from occurring again, but also to attract even more people to this industry in the future, especially many youngsters who could well see this career as a viable one in due course. The government’s recent plan of issuing limited and temporary three month visas for EU nationals to come over and sort out the crisis by doing these jobs themselves, will by no means deal with the issues that I outlined, and will not help to solve the shortage for the long term at all. A proper plan must be set out to establish how to deal with this sector based on the ongoing adaptation in the labour market, as the UK recovers from Covid and builds itself up outside the EU.