Thousands of people who shop in the UK have probably noticed shortages of products in British supermarkets. The supply problems are blamed on the shortage of HGV drivers and the government is taking steps to tackle it: the driving hours have been extended and there is a talk about bringing the army drivers to help with the supermarket deliveries. While “the shortage of drivers” have been talked over by the press in the UK for as long as I remember, this time the situation is serious. So what are the reasons for that situation and are the reasons quoted by the government (COVID etc.) really the issue?
This is my subjective list of the reasons why there are not enough drivers in the UK. The list might not be exhaustive. The order is random, although I divided the reasons into four groups.
GROUP A: REASONS WHY EUROPEAN TRUCKS NOT COMING HERE AS MUCH AS THEY USED TO.
1. Brexit itself
Let’s get that one out of the way straight away. British imports and exports plunged in the months after Brexit. We initially haven’t noticed it thanks to the stockpiling, but Britain started to run out of its stock. And even if not, the stock still needs to be transported. The EU trucks were responsible for a lot of internal UK transport thanks to cabotage rules. What does it mean? Imagine you are arriving in your German truck and unload your cargo in Coventry. Then you have to load the cargo going back to Germany in Glasgow. To avoid driving empty all the way from Midlands to Scotland you pick a load going that way, for example from a big distribution centre in Birmingham to a supermarket distribution centre in Scottish central belt.
With fewer EU trucks on British roads, fewer loads can travel on them. That means Britain needs more British trucks (and drivers!) to fulfil its internal transport needs.
2. Brexit’s red tape
With Britain being out of the European Union now, the incoming trucks need to deal with custom clearances and border controls. This takes time, especially if the country is completely unprepared for it. Unlike, for example, Switzerland or Norway, Britain lacks the facilities and trained, experienced staff to deal with the paperwork. That means that in some cases trucks are grounded for days until the paperwork hiccups are straightened up. And unless the wheels are turning, the truck is not making money for its owner. Therefore many EU companies just gave up on taking freight to Britain altogether. Why would they keep coming here, if they have 27 other countries to shift the goods between, virtually border-free and with only the very basic paperwork?
Yes, the Brexiteers and members of the UK government will blame all issues on COVID. And it’s not like it does not play a part. UK Government’s chaotic response to COVID results in the fact, that the UK is seen as a plague island by many in Europe. The stories about people quarantined in the hotel at great expense (apparently a week’s stay in the half-empty airport hotel on the London outskirts costs twice as much as all-inclusive holidays in some tropical destination) and the outrageous scenes that took place around last Christmas when thousands of drivers were literally imprisoned at the old airport with no food or even basic facilities in place were not making any favours to Britain’s already tarnished reputation as a crap place to come as a driver (you can read my reportage about the ordeal drivers had to go through in December here).
4. Migrant situation in Calais
One can say that the situation with migrants in Calais, who attack drivers, damage lorries and try to break into the trailers has nothing to do with Britain because those things happen on French soil. I won’t go into the discussion about if it is legal to prevent people seeking asylum into Britain, let’s just focus on how this situation looks from the driver’s point of view: by coming through Calais one places himself between the hammer and the hard place: if the illegal migrants will be found in the trailer after the truck crossed the channel, the driver can be arrested and fined for “facilitating illegal entry to the country”. And thanks to the new reform of law proposed by Priti Patel, the prosecution won’t even have to prove that he did it for a profit or knowingly. On the other hand, if the driver decides to do the British Border Services’ job, as it’s expected from him, and try to tackle the illegal migration himself by challenging people who try to break into his vehicle, he might be beaten or even killed by them.
No surprise that I hear more and more drivers, who when taking on new jobs demand guarantees from their employers that they won’t be sent to the UK.
GROUP B: REASONS WHY EU DRIVERS ARE NOT WILLING TO SEEK WORK IN THE UK AS MUCH AS BEFORE.
5. Brexit (again)
Let’s be honest. With broken promises, settled status or the need for visas, a hostile environment and the risk of being detained at the border, not many EU drivers would choose to work in Britain any more – imagine you are a Polish driver. Would you rather come to Britain and jump through all the hoops, or choose any of the well paying EU countries, for example, Germany that, if you live in Western Poland, is just a short drive across (virtually non-existent thanks to Schengen) border?
Of course, some still try to come – and Priti Patel’s crew does not make it easy for them. I’ve been following closely the case of one Polish driver, who lived in Britain for six years before returning to Poland four years ago. According to his lawyers, he has obtained residential status under old rules – and since 5 years haven’t passed yet, he is fully entitled to apply for settled status. There is only one issue: he cannot do it from Poland, he needs to be physically present in Britain to do that. Unfortunately, on arrival, he was detained at the border and later deported to Poland. All his documents were seized by the home office, so he was unable to go forward with his Settled Status claim.
Do you think that his case will encourage more jobseekers to come here?
6. Low wages – even compared to Eastern European countries
When I started my Scottish adventure back in 2005, the van driving jobs were paying better than minimum wage. The truck driving jobs in 2006, when I came back with my licence, was near twice that – and that for a class 2 driver with very poor English and no truck driving experience whatsoever. Fast forward 15 years and class 2 driver is lucky if he lands in the job that pays 20% over minimum wage. Even recent hikes in rates still haven’t brought us to the 2006 levels. Meanwhile, the costs of becoming a truck driver and maintaining one’s qualification have risen – drivers are now required to undergo periodic training to renew their qualifications every five years, often at their own expense.
At the same time the pay rates in Eastern Europe have risen significantly. I dare to say that an experienced truck driver can have a better life in Poland than in Britain (if we recalculated his salary in the light of the purchasing power and costs of living in both countries, he will earn more there). Not to mention Western European or Nordic Countries that are also welcoming drivers from that part of Europe. There is simply a very little financial incentive for Eastern European drivers to come to Britain anymore.
7. Systematic discrimination
European drivers who’ll come here will have, of course, driving licences issued by their countries of origin. For many years it was not a problem, as EU licences are mutually recognized by European countries. Then, with DVLA moving their penalty point system online, the EU licence holders become “second class drivers” – while during the time of the paper counterparts they had British counterpart licences issues as everyone else, the computer system leaves them behind: if your licence is not issued by Britain it is impossible to check how many points you have in Britain using DVLA online services, even though they DO put penalty points and other information on your record.
That puts them in the worse position when competing for jobs with UK licence holders, as many companies, third party licence check services or insurance companies simply won’t bother with checking the record of the UE licence holder, as it is simply too complicated. Of course, you can solve this problem by exchanging your EU licence for a British one (which, to drive trucks, you have to do after a maximum of five years, or when you hit 45 years, whichever is later), but with Brexit, many drivers – younger, or those who just wanted to come here for a short period of time – are not willing to do it now, as while EU licence is still valid in Britain, British licences are not valid in the UE any more, which means that they would need to obtain International Driving Licence to go for holidays to their own country, and if they decide to look for a job back in the EU, they cannot even start until they exchange their British licence back.
With Brexit, another hoop to jump through is also their residency status. It’s an employer’s duty to check if the driver they want to employ is in Britain legally – that mean if he has a visa, or if he has a settled status (for which, the EU citizens who reside in Britain have no physical proof, so it all depends again on the online services that are known to be down quite often, making it impossible – unless you call that helpdesk that charges you over 10 pounds for 10 minutes). That, again, puts them at a disadvantage when they have to compete for work with natives. And I know, there is a driver shortage, so the jobs are plentiful, but remember that there are good and bad jobs around…
8. Everyday discrimination
Brexit had opened a black hole into the deepest layers of British society that we haven’t seen before. The level of harassment and hate crime has risen to unprecedented levels. If you were European, would you really want to come to the country where at every little step – from dealing with Home Office and Border Forces to the trip to your local pub – you can be reminded, in a very clear manner, that you’re not welcome here?
GROUP C: REASONS WHY PEOPLE IN BRITAIN DON’T WANT TO BECOME DRIVERS OR ARE LEAVING THE INDUSTRY
You can see point six. Everything mentioned there applies. But from the point of view of a British person, the choice is often between becoming a driver and choosing a different career path. With the cost of obtaining even a class 2 licence at around 1000 pounds right now, you’ll have to fork out a significant sum of money – often beyond the capabilities of the young person entering the work market – even before you start. The apprenticeships in that industry are really rare, and even if the employer offers to fund the training for the incomer, it usually ends up in being tied with working for them for 2 years or so – and the fact that the employer has to fund training to the new drivers usually signals that they struggle to get experienced drivers, which often indicates that they are not exactly the best company to work for in the first place.
So why would one save up a grand to become a truck driver and do hard work for long hours at the pay comparable to a shop assistant in Aldi, if there are plenty of college courses and apprenticeships that help the candidate to become a plumber or an electrician with much higher earning potential? Most of the young people who enter the industry are therefore those who are lured by the romantic idea of being a driver.
10. Being a driver is not fun anymore
But the driver’s job is no longer a romantic adventure. It’s not all about driving towards the setting sun with the roar of your V8 diesel engine. More often than not it is just a hard graft for the big company that saves as much as possible on vehicles and for which you are only a number. And there is not much freedom left either – the drivers are dictated about the exact route they have to choose, and thanks to the developments in telemetry, their driving style is under constant observation (I wrote about it here).
The long-distance jobs – which were often the magnet that brought people to the industry – are also becoming sparse. With the growth of the intermodal transport and container industry, bigger and bigger percentage of jobs becoming a boring, repetitive journeys between the port and some warehouse, or from the local distribution centre to the shops in the few hours’ drive range.
Part 2 to follow.
This article first appeared on my blog, Orynski.eu