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29 September 2021

UK lorry driver crisis: why short-term visas won’t lure back Europeans

Drivers are in short supply across Europe, and Brexit means few, if any, will be tempted to cross the Channel.

By Dave Keating

On Monday, as Olaf Scholz – expected to be the next chancellor of Germany – gave his post-election press conference, he received a rather off-topic question about lorry drivers in Britain. Would Germany help the UK out in its current HGV labour shortage crisis? “The free movement of labour is part of the EU and we worked very hard to convince the British not to leave the union,” Scholz responded.

The UK government has been at pains to insist the shortage of drivers is due to Covid rather than Brexit, and much of the British media has been happy to go along with this. But whether Brexit is the main cause of the UK’s extreme HGV driver shortage is key in determining whether one of the government’s chosen solutions, relaxing work visa requirements for European drivers, will solve the problem. If the problem isn’t Brexit, as the UK government insists, there is no way its chosen policy solution can work. And even if Brexit is the main cause, industry experts say the short-term visa relaxation is very unlikely to lure over European drivers who have been unable to work in the UK since the country left the EU single market nine months ago.

The government has said it will allow up to 5,000 additional EU HGV drivers to work in the UK for the next three months. But Edwin Atema from the Netherlands-based union of lorry drivers FNV told BBC’s Radio 4 on 27 September that European drivers are unlikely to be enticed by this offer.

“The EU workers we speak to will not go to the UK for a short-term visa to help the UK out of the shit they created themselves,” he told the BBC. “In the short term, I think that will be a dead end.” 

The UK government is correct that there is a shortage of lorry drivers across Europe. But Brexit has exacerbated this problem for the UK, resulting in dramatic scenes of rationed petrol and empty food shelves. In the EU the driver shortage has not been accompanied by such problems, and has not been felt by ordinary people.

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“The driver shortage is a long-time European problem, when we look at the numbers for 2020, 2019 or even 2018 we see that there was already a shortage,” said Frank Moreels, president of the European Transport Workers’ Federation. In 2020 Germany was short of 45,000 to 65,000 HGV drivers, according to data from the logistics analyst Transport Intelligence. France has had a shortage of 43,000 drivers since 2019. 

Before the pandemic and Brexit, the problem was not disproportionately affecting the UK. In 2019 24 per cent of lorry driver positions in the UK were unfilled, compared to 22 per cent in Poland, 21 per cent in the Czech Republic and 20 per cent in Spain, according to the International Road Transport Union (IRU). With less business during lockdowns, fewer drivers were needed across Europe and many were forced out of work. Some have since found jobs in other industries, and it has been difficult to lure them back to a job which is hard and keeps them away from their families. 

The Europe-wide shortage is resulting in a rapid improvement of pay and offers to improve conditions. In such an environment, it is hard to see why drivers would choose the UK’s offer, which comes with more paperwork, thanks to Brexit, and less certainty. “Why should a truck driver from wherever in Europe go to work in the UK just because it’s now easier to get a temporary visa?” asked Moreels.

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The UK’s internal logistics have for years relied on thousands of drivers from the EU, mostly from central and Eastern Europe. Many of these people were not eligible for settled status after Brexit because their permanent residences remained in the EU, and many who returned home have since changed professions because of the conditions created by the pandemic. Those who haven’t, or who are thinking about returning to driving, have so far faced immigration obstacles for any routes going to the UK. Even if those immigration obstacles are temporarily removed, drivers are still left with other problems associated with the UK routes that make them unappealing, including migrants trying to get into lorries before they cross the Channel.

The IRU, which represents European logistics companies, said it welcomes the government’s move but can’t yet comment on whether EU-based drivers are likely to take up any of the 5,000 short-term visas, which, it highlights, is still a relatively small number compared to the total need for 100,000 additional drivers. “Qualified HGV drivers don’t tend to move abroad without longer term stability in terms of work contract,” said Raluca Marian, the organisation’s EU advocacy director. “There are driver shortages in many places – although not as acute as currently in the UK – which puts their skills in demand elsewhere also.”

Moreels agrees, and added that a temporary visa relaxation and higher pay can’t make up for the poor working conditions that are present everywhere in Europe but are particularly bad in the UK and accompanied by other issues. “People no longer feel that this is a good job to do,” he said. “And now with Brexit and corona[virus] it has become very acute in the UK.”