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27 September 2021updated 12 Oct 2021 11:52am

Why can’t furloughed workers just become HGV drivers?

What there is really a shortage of is not workers but people who are prepared to work for very little.

By Will Dunn

The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme’s protection of jobs effectively ends this week. Furloughed workers will still be paid until 31 October, but their employers are supposed to give notice, by Thursday 30 September, if they plan to make them redundant rather than bringing them back on full pay.

With widespread shortages and rising prices of fuel, food and other business necessities, this is a worrying moment for a very large number of workers. The Resolution Foundation has warned that around one million people are still paid through the furlough scheme. 

On the other hand, aren’t there loads of jobs going? The Recruitment and Employment Confederation says there are more than 1.9 million jobs advertised, the highest number since it began tracking job ads in January 2020. With so many businesses crying out for employees – HGV drivers, chefs, cleaners, sales assistants, carers – there is a temptation to assume that every furloughed worker has another job to walk into if their current employer can’t keep them on.

But exclusive polling for the New Statesman by Redfield & Wilton Strategies paints a different picture. From a representative sample of UK respondents, most people (56 per cent) agreed that it would be difficult for them to find work in the industry they wanted to work in, and nearly half (49 per cent) said it would be hard to find work in their industry if they had to leave their current job. 

For those who are being offered work, the headlines about being paid more than £60,000 to drive an HGV or pick cabbages are far from reality: 35 per cent said that the salaries offered by most jobs currently advertised in their industry are lower than they would expect, and almost a quarter (21 per cent) said they had turned down a job interview or a job offer in the last 12 months because the salary was too low. 

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What there is really a shortage of, then, is not workers in all roles but people who are prepared to work for very little. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies points out, there may be a record number of vacancies but these are almost all in low-paying occupations. For most jobseekers, competition for jobs is actually higher than it was before the pandemic.   

This is also the real reason for the current shortage of HGV drivers. The basic problem is inequality. Brexit didn’t help – recruitment specialist Driver Require estimates 12,500 EU drivers have left the UK workforce since January – but the main problem was the 55,000 British drivers who took the pause offered by the pandemic and decided, after decades of sleeping in laybys and low pay plus the IR35 tax change, that it wasn’t worth it any more. There are at least a million people in the UK with HGV licenses who aren’t using them, as revealed by the Department for Transport’s odd plan to write to them all. The fact that these skilled masses aren’t now springing into action to ensure the nation gets its petrol tells us a lot about the work of being an HGV driver and how it is rewarded. 

The real risk from Brexit is the danger that Global Britain will see the current supply crisis as a reason to out-compete other nations by deregulating employment law; the government’s extension of working hours for HGV drivers, almost none of whom wanted to work even longer hours, is a step in that direction. Such deregulation could be good for employers in the short term, but the long-term result of treating people as cheap, expendable labour is that they too see their jobs as expendable, cheap, and easily swapped for something less stressful and better paid. 

Many employers still seem unable to grasp that income inequality isn’t a social problem that is separate from their business but something that happens between their own offices, shops, factories and vans. It is a real factor in who they can employ. And while people might not notice a sudden lack of knowledge workers or senior managers, when you lose tens of thousands of low-paid workers you get empty shelves and fights at petrol stations. 

If a lot of people leave their jobs at the end of the furlough scheme, then, there are two possibilities. Either large numbers of people decide it’s time to leave the labour force, by retiring (as many truckers did), in which case the labour shortage gets still worse, or large numbers of people move into lower-paid work that they don’t want, and the risk of these sudden spikes in worker availability keeps going up. 

[See also: From fuel to inflation to Universal Credit, a cost of living crisis is brewing]

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