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Truck Stop: an EU lorry driver's view of the haulage crisis

6 min read

As British people walk among empty supermarket shelves, they could be forgiven for being concerned about Christmas. When the government deploys the army and desperately tries to import thousands of foreign temporary workers, the promised post-Brexit “sunlit uplands” seem rather distant. The most acute shortage is that of lorry drivers.

My name is Tomasz Oryński, and I am a journalist. You’ve probably never read any of my pieces. Britain has little demand for Eastern European journalists, as I well know after years of trying to get my foot in the industry’s door.

Luckily for me, I can also drive a lorry. And you need lorry drivers. Just as you need millions of other Eastern European workers to keep the economy moving – builders, warehouse operators, nurses, kitchen porters, housekeepers, waiters – sprinkled with the occasional academic, manager or doctor. But Britain seems unable to understand why.

Elements of the British media and Brexit supporters are in denial. They claim the British shortage of truckers is part of a wider global trend, which is true. But they take their claims too far.

For example, a map showing Poland lacking 120,000 drivers is doing the rounds on the internet. It should be read in context: Polish haulage companies do need workers, but Poland, despite having just under eight per cent of the EU population, is responsible for moving nearly a quarter of its freight.

There are more than enough drivers in Poland to sustain the needs of the country, and the remaining shortage spreads thinly across several EU countries that rely on Polish hauliers for their transport needs. The fact the single market allows gaps to be plugged in the supply chain more easily is the reason other Europeans are not – at time of writing – dealing with empty shelves or fuel shortages.

Britain, on the other hand, had a much more isolated haulage market even before Brexit. The drivers who left the industry – or indeed the country – cannot be easily replaced, nor can their jobs be taken over by foreign truckers, as is common in the rest of Europe. And being a driver in the UK is no longer an attractive job.

While the rising minimum wage was pushing up the income of the unqualified workforce, the salaries of truckers remained the same. It had reached the point when a shop assistant in Aldi could earn better money than a truck driver. What would be the incentive to invest in gaining all those qualifications only to end up in unpredictable, responsible, hard and dirty work, often at unsociable hours?

British truckers were leaving the industry, while Eastern Europeans – who were a significant part of the workforce – were leaving the country. Changes brought about by Brexit and the subsequent bureaucratic barriers such as settled status, impelled many back to their home country, or to one of the other EU states, where being a truck driver is still an attractive job.

It’s not just about money, although many western or Nordic countries pay much better wages than Britain and, due to lower living costs, countries like Poland can offer a better quality of life for a trucker. It is also about a lack of facilities. Britain is notorious for its scarce and overpriced motorway services, its limited number of truck stops, lack of accessible toilets and showers, and absence of restaurants offering healthy food choices.

Truckers are forced to spend their rest times in narrow laybys being rocked in their cab by passing vehicles, or seek some quieter place for overnight parking in industrial areas – in both cases without access to welfare facilities. More and more councils, from Kent to Cumbria, have introduced parking restrictions, further limiting the pool of accessible overnight stops.

Last but not least, it’s about respect. While in the rest of Europe truckers are seen as providers of essential services not only during the peak of pandemic, British attitudes mean they are often treated like peasants by office staff and personnel at the point of delivery or collection. Drivers who work away from base all week are called “trampers” – the joke goes that it’s because they look like tramps – unwashed and scruffy due to the poor availability of showers. This does not help in breaking that stereotype.

That lack of respect is coming back to bite. After years of politicians and the media working very hard to convince Eastern Europeans they are not welcome here, it now thinks it can lure them back with temporary visa job offers, as if they saw migrants like a water tap that one can use to fill a glass as required and pour the excess down the drain.

Is that offer really attractive for your average Polish trucker? I recently compared two jobs advertised in Poland. One of them paid a decent (for Poland) daily rate plus a €63 (£54) overnight allowance (in Britain a typical overnight allowance is less than half that, and many drivers are expected to use it to pay for overnight parking). There were also very good benefits including access to company-paid secure parking, canteens, common rooms, accommodation and laundrettes, free training, medical examinations and much more.

The other advert invited Poles to work in Britain, transporting containers from the Port of Tilbury. While the daily rate was nearly £100 higher, the job was dayshift or nightshift only, so no overnight allowance – bringing the difference down to about £40 more per day. All for driving in the most overcrowded part of England, on bad roads with constant roadworks and traffic jams and next-to-no roadside facilities for truckers.

And while the EU employer offers free transport to and from the driver’s home every two or three weeks for a week-long holiday, the driver who chose the Tilbury job would have to pay for a visa, fork out for plane tickets (and Covid tests), find accommodation and a way to commute, and pay all associated bills, rents and taxes.

They’d do this knowing that in a few months they would be forced to leave – all for a mere £40 a day more than they would be able to earn driving across the beautiful roads of France, Italy and the Benelux countries in that other job, with a week’s holiday at home at least once a month. It’s not a tough decision.

Britain could compete. It could offer better job benefits and more money. But to make up for all the red tape associated with being outside the EU and the appalling state of the roadside facilities for truckers, the money would have to be really tempting. The bill would eventually be picked up by the public, paying for their weekly shopping. Is the British public ready to see prices spiking at such a difficult time for the economy?

I’m asked if I could explain what the British government could do to rectify the problem. Honestly, I don’t know. You didn’t want us when we were willing to live here, now you offend us with your “come, save our Christmas” offer. The damage is done.

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