It’s not just Brexit

A section of a Sainsbury's store where the shelves of milk substitutes are either sparsely-stocked or empty.
Half-stocked shelves at a Sainsbury’s in Bedfordshire

Anyone who shops in any British supermarket (which is to say, pretty much anyone who lives in the UK) will have noticed that there are shortages of some goods, with some whole areas of shelving bare. So far, this hasn’t been anything essential, but the it’s often inconvenient and requires time-consuming visits to multiple stores to get what could previously been bought from one. While some have sought to blame driver absenteeism stemming from the so-called pingdemic, i.e. the recent upsurge in Covid cases resulting from the spread of the Indian or Delta variant, it’s also been pointed out that supermarkets on the Continent aren’t empty. While the Brexit deal still allows goods to come in from the EU without any tariffs, the new arrangements do impose additional bureaucracy which are a deterrent to hauliers to sending drivers here (and to drivers to agreeing to come here). However, Brexit has revealed other problems in the industry which have arisen right now partly because of the pandemic. (More: Tomasz Orynski.)

During the period following the 2004 accession of much of the former Eastern Bloc to the EU, at which point the UK and Ireland (unlike the rest of the former EU) allowed nationals of those countries to freely settle and work, Britain’s logistics industry made itself substantially dependent on this foreign labour. In my experience, it relieved British hauliers of having to invest in and take a risk on British talent. Many companies took out insurance policies which required them not to hire drivers who had held their licence for under two years; this meant that newly qualified truck drivers found it very difficult to get any work. In addition, very few companies sponsored drivers through their training (which bus companies did, and indeed prominently advertised this). They were able to do this because there was no shortage of drivers thanks to the “reserve army” (as one pro-Brexit blogger calls it) of drivers from eastern Europe. Wages stagnated; in most of the country there were and still are companies offering barely above minimum wage for both rigid and articulated truck driving. In addition, continental hauliers could pick up and drop loads while in the UK under EU cabotage rules; they could carry three such loads before having to leave (usually with a load, of course) but could come back as soon as that load was delivered. (Since Brexit, that limit has been reduced to one load.)

So, after Britain left the EU (with a deal that was cut specifically to allow us to prevent future EU worker immigration) and after drivers were held on motorways for days after the Kent variant of Covid ran rampant around the UK last December, a good many foreign drivers decided it was no longer worth working here and left. The rules that other countries applied after the 2004 accession that we could have applied but did not have now lapsed; drivers from Poland can work anywhere they like in Europe except the UK. Facilities for drivers on much of the Continent are a great deal better than here; there are more truck stops with better and cheaper food. Here, drivers are often expected to spend their nights in lay-bys where there are no facilities at all, not even toilets, and where they are at risk of fuel and load theft; actual truck stops are rare (and often closed at weekends), while service stations are expensive, with food subject to a mark-up as the vendors pass on the substantial rents to customers and almost no station offering independent vendors or speciality food.

A further factor pushing drivers out of the industry and deterring drivers who have left in the past 20 years from returning is the treatment drivers are expected to tolerate. Many large fleets consist of overly monitored trucks; speeds are restricted to below the actual limit and drivers can expect phone calls from the compliance depots demanding to know why they’ve stopped (many do not allow drivers to stop mid-route, and demand that they phone in if they do), or to second-guess their routing decision or to criticise their fuel economy score. An increasing number of depots have demeaning rules which are based on the assumption that drivers are thieves, morons or both. Many now require drivers to hand over keys when parked in the depot (not even just when being loaded) and sit in an enclosed room (sometimes effectively or actually a cage). Many companies refuse to allow drivers access to a toilet, regardless of how long a journey they have travelled; sometimes Covid is cited as an excuse. Some depots (particularly in the retail industry) require drivers to wait several hours before they will offload or reload, sometimes requiring trips to more than one loading bay. Recently some hauliers decided to boycott some major retailers, including Lidl, in response to their drivers being inconvenienced in this way, but many still allow their customers to treat their drivers with contempt even if drivers will walk out.

Pro-EU campaigners are calling for European truck drivers to be allowed back into the country to work. If they will come (and not all of those who left will return), it might solve a temporary crisis but will not solve the deeper problems that led to this crisis. (Waiving the much-derided Certificate of Professional Competence might also help get some former drivers back, even if temporarily.) British hauliers must not again be allowed to rely on low-wage labour from eastern Europe to get around having to pay decent wages or dealing with ‘demanding’ British drivers who want to maintain a normal standard of living rather than live in a multi-occupancy house and send money home. We must have a vast improvement in facilities on the road and an end to drivers being treated like dirt by both haulage bosses and depot management and staff. We rely on truck drivers to deliver everything we eat and everything we use and if they are not treated with respect, they will find other work and will tolerate the bottled water shortage if it means a less stressful and maybe even better-paid job with more consistent hours.

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