UK lorry driver shortage a stark example of a wider European problem

The UK has been grappling with a fuel-supply crisis for days now, with many petrol stations running out, and those with supplies seeing huge lines of traffic as people desperately try to fill up.

It’s not just fuel that’s not getting to where it needs to be in the country, though. Empty supermarket shelves have also been highlighted, as a result of a severe shortage of lorry drivers, needed to keep supply chains running smoothly.

One of the culprits, according to some analysts, is Brexit.

Where once the UK relied on drivers coming from Eastern Europe, after leaving the bloc many of them have left in search of better pay and working conditions on the continent, according to Nikolay Rashkov, Head of EU Affairs at the Union of International Haulers in Bulgaria.

“A shortage of drivers in the early 2000s in the UK led to a need to employ a cheaper workforce from newer European Union states,” he said.

“Twenty years later the shortage hasn’t changed, but currently after Brexit the UK says it doesn’t want uneducated people coming from the EU. You don’t need a university degree to be a lorry driver. So they qualify as unwanted people in the country.”

Temporary visas like ‘throwing a thimble of water on a bonfire’

After weeks of mounting pressure over shortages, the UK government announced it will issue 5,000 emergency visas to foreign truck drivers to help alleviate the problem.

But these are three-month visas, which critics say won’t entice European truck drivers.

Ruby McGregor-Smith, president of the Confederation of British Industry, said the visas were “the equivalent of throwing a thimble of water on a bonfire”.

Edwin Atema from the Dutch FNV union told Sky News the visa plan was “unrealistic”, asking: “Who will quit a job in the EU for a three-month visa in the UK? I think that’s a really uncertain adventure.”

He told the broadcaster that poor working conditions in the UK and the possibility of being stuck in Dover were also putting European drivers off.

Rashkov adds that the UK is already less desirable because of the higher taxes imposed compared to many European countries.

“So X amount of people will come to the UK presumably. Once they’re in the UK, their work is paid by the mile. When you have overcrowded hubs and customs formalities, and on top of that the taxes you have to pay in the UK, then it’s the driver’s choice where to do the same amount of work on the continent somewhere and probably he’ll have bigger mileage, which means bigger pay,” he says.

But it’s not just the UK that’s grappling with the shortage of drivers. As demand for stock is driven up following the coronavirus pandemic, so too is demand for drivers.

400,000 more drivers needed across Europe

The haulage industry says the UK is short some 100,000 drivers — an extreme example which has been exacerbated by Brexit — but Germany and Poland are also grappling with a serious shortfall.

According to Transport Intelligence, the driver shortfall across Europe now surpasses 400,000.

According to many who work — or worked — in the industry, bad working conditions, long distances, and long stretches of time away from home are some of the reasons why people have left in droves.

“Some companies put up their offices in Poland or Turkey or whatever country that would give the lowest wages,” Ron Van Lingen, a former haulage company owner, told Euronews.

“And the drivers were then put to work in Holland or Europe or wherever, but were paid according to the wages of their own countries, instead of the law which said that you have to pay a driver of a Dutch truck or a German truck according to the German wages.

“It was a way to undercut wages, and undercut your own cost and create a better competitive position, but it went over the back of the drivers as we put it.”

The problems in industry have been foreseen for at least a decade.

Truck driver unions say the onus is now on EU member states to ensure that labour laws are being upheld and conditions are improved if the situation is ever to be resolved.

As for the UK, Christmas won’t be cancelled, according to Jonathan Portes, a professor of economics and public policy at King’s College London.

He told Euronews the shortage was “not surprising” following post-lockdown reopening, and that “Brexit had aggravated this” but was not the main cause.

“We need to distinguish between short-term disruptions, which are politically important but not just caused by Brexit and which will eventually be resolved, and long-term impacts of Brexit on trade, migration, etc, which are only just beginning,” he said.

“People may have to pay more for their turkey, but that’s not the end of the world,” he concluded.

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