Richard North, 09/09/2021  

Amongst the many issues which seem to stretch the capabilities of the legacy media to report, the HGV driver shortage must rank highly in the list. As the saga drags on, the print media and broadcasters seem no further forward in understanding the issue than when they first started reporting on it.

A small, but relevant contribution did, however, make its way into the Guardian on Monday from a former editor of Trucking magazine, Richard Simpson, but then only in the letters page.

He asserted that the shortage of truck drivers had been "a long time coming". Road transport, he wrote, shared with the social care industry an enduring culture of increasing profit by reducing costs, with frontline workers paying the price.

Both transport and care were now dominated by agencies, which seemed to do little for the pounds of flesh that they extracted from staff and clients. Unsurprisingly, Simpson said, people prefer to earn a living in other ways.

There are, he added, about 600,000 people holding LGV cat C (rigid truck) or cat C+E (articulated lorry) licences in the UK who do not currently drive trucks for a living. Why, he asks, would they want to return to the job? Facilities are poor, the hours brutal and the responsibilities onerous.

There is quite evidently a great deal of truth in this and, as I pointed out, in this piece, the crisis had been a long time coming, with shortages forecast well before the EU referendum.

One of the main reasons why the UK did not reach crisis level earlier was because the logistics industry had been able to rely on a flow of ready-trained foreign drivers, mostly from eastern and central Europe, who have been prepared to tolerate the dismal working conditions.

Quite how dismal there were (in part), Pete picked up in this piece, pointing to an industry rife with exploitation which in many instances could easily be described as modern slavery.

Needless to say, this did not stop the industry lobbying government to allow it to continue its exploitative practices, whence it was largely given a free pass by the legacy media, some of which organs were only too keen to pin down the shortage on Brexit.

Belatedly, however, the Daily Mail managed to report that mainland Europe was experiencing an estimated 400,000 lorry driver shortage, which raised questions as to whether Brexit was actually responsible.

Yet, despite all their resources, none of the UK legacy media sought to look into one of the main triggers of the immediate crisis, explained by Pete here, based in part on coverage from Euractiv.

Considering that the Guardian is a media partner with Euractiv, one might have thought it might have followed the coverage, particularly this piece which reported that EU Member States were to take action in the ECJ against the first Mobility Package which had been adopted in July 2020.

The adopted measures in the Mobility Package I, they complained, had gone far beyond the original objectives of reforming EU law on international road haulage and violated EU Treaty provisions. Furthermore, they lead to the distortion of the EU Single Market by introducing artificial administrative barriers to the functioning of road transport companies.

Seven Member States were involved, warning that the measures would result in higher prices for transport services and consequently for goods in the European Union, which will in turn would reduce the EU’s global competitiveness and may increase costs for consumers.

The new legislative acts did not provide a level playing field for EU hauliers and introduce protectionist measures that hinder competition among EU member states. This approach ran counter to the idea of furthering the EU Single Market. Moreover, the geographical specificities of member states located at the external borders of the EU as well as island member states were not taken into account.

But, as Pete explained, the more immediate effect was to change the working conditions for eastern and central European drivers, to their financial disadvantage, making it no longer worth their while to tolerate the poor conditions.

A burgeoning crisis, already forecast by the European Parliament in 2009 – seven years before the EU referendum - suddenly got a whole lot worse, courtesy of the European Commission.

The Euractive reports were in October last year and, since then, the ECJ hearing has disappeared down the rabbit hole. Little had been publicly reported since, other than an attempt by the European Transport Workers' Federation to have the ECJ referral abandoned.

But now we have the logistics industry news website, Loadstar reporting that "acute driver shortages in Central Eastern Europe (CEE) are coming to the fore, amid a post-pandemic spike in volumes".

It cites several sources, including Deutsche Post DHL, which say that supply chains are struggling to find drivers in and around CEE, with one source suggesting this "blew open" the claim that UK driver shortages could be cured with a "dose of European drivers".

A DHL spokesperson is cited, saying, "Our supply chain division is seeing additional demand for drivers, especially in the UK but also North America and parts of Europe". He adds: "The major pinch points in Europe are in the Central Eastern European countries because of a return of volumes and the associated year-on-year increase from the 2020 impact of the Covid pandemic".

Although CEE countries appear worst hit, the knock-on effect from the crisis is being felt widely across Europe, with a port of Hamburg spokesperson acknowledging that Germany was experiencing similar issues.

One haulier, Loadstar tells us, challenged the assertion that there was "simply a pool of Eastern European drivers" other countries could dip into when struggling to train and retain their own. Instead, the haulier said, events in CEE reflected the situation in the UK, namely "an undervalued job was losing its key asset, drivers", and large firms were struggling to recognise their role in this.

The haulier went on to say: "I am actually really pleased this has all come to a head – the big retailers and, by default, the big haulage firms and logistics companies have had it far too easy for far too long when it comes to transport costs". There is a global driver shortage because of poor treatment, and it's all becoming apparent.

But then, he said, the match that "blew open" the lid on the lack of European drivers was lit by an EU law change preventing the weekly 45-hour rest requirement being taken in cabs, and imposing a "return-to-base" rule, requiring drivers to return home every four weeks.

This is exactly the problem Pete reported in his piece. Prior to this, some drivers would accept reduced hourly rates in exchange for unlimited hours, but the new rule meant poor rates and treatment "was no longer worth it".

The haulier dismisses the claim that "tens of thousands of European drivers" suddenly went home after Brexit – significant numbers had settled status. What has happened is that big firms were exploiting drivers from Eastern Europe. Some coped with it, as longer hours meant more money, but others started leaving the industry as the culture and pay were not worth it.

"The rule change occurred", he says, "now this treatment has been exposed and rates are having to go up to lure them back in. But it’s going to take more than that; the shippers and big haulage firms have ignored this issue, so the problem isn’t going away any time soon".

In an additional piece, Loadstar writer Gavin van Marle reiterates points I have made.

For decades, he says, the driver shortage crisis has been hiding in plain sight, and while it is only in the past few months that it has come to the attention to the wider public, the reality is that it has been a slow-burn car crash – some 20 years ago, the consensus in the industry was a shortfall of 15,000.

Each year it has progressively got worse, to the extent that it now stands at 100,000, due to a well-known combination of structural reasons – poor pay; long and unsociable working hours; poor working conditions; a lack of secure, off-road rest facilities; and generally abysmal treatment at the hands of customers.

Van Marle notes that the standard Home Office response to numerous requests to slacken working visa rules for European drivers is that, post-Brexit, "firms now need to invest in UK staff", and offers little else – apart from shortening the HGV driver testing process.

But, Van Marle writes, given the hitherto lack of success in attracting UK drivers, and the now common understanding that, like it or not, haulage is a sector without which the economy would fall apart, the government really needs to get more involved in resolving this. "The responsibility for making the profession more attractive has now spread beyond the industry itself", he adds.

In effect, the industry has got itself in such a mess that it no longer has the ability to solve its own problems – and must look to the Johnson administration to rescue it. We really do have a problem here, worse than anyone could possibly imagine, and it ain't Brexit.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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