A government plea for former lorry drivers to get behind the wheel will not solve a labour shortage that has left supermarket shelves empty and prompted panic buying of fuel, drivers and unions have warned.
Over the weekend, ministers scrambled to persuade drivers who have left the industry to take up work after a warning from retailers that they had “10 days to save Christmas”, with stocks needed now in order to avoid empty shelves during the festive season.
Ministers from the Department for Transport wrote to a million HGV licence holders over the weekend asking them to consider returning to the sector. The government also announced a temporary visa scheme for 5,000 lorry drivers and 5,500 poultry workers. Competition law is also to be suspended to allow fuel companies to co-ordinate where they send supplies.
Unions questioned whether the plea to HGV licence holders would make a dent in the shortfall of tens of thousands of lorry drivers thought to be needed. Barckley Sumner, a spokesperson for Unite, said that while it was “sensible” to ask former drivers, perhaps only “a handful” would return while working conditions in the sector remained remained poor.
Unite said lorry driver and poultry processing visas were “propping up a broken and exploitative system”. The union accused poultry processing plants of offering “poverty pay and insecure contracts [that] do not compensate for the physically draining and unpleasant work”.
Tomasz Orynski, a lorry driver based in Glasgow, told The Independent that the visa scheme was “not appealing at all” and the letter had become a “laughing stock” among colleagues.
Rafał Pakos, a Polish driver who left the UK ahead of Brexit on 1 January, said he believed the scheme was “not a good idea”.
“You have to make drivers want to work in the UK,” he said. “Three months is nothing. I can’t even find a place to stay in that time.
“The main thing that drivers will consider is a good salary,” he said, adding that tax changes which reduced drivers’ take-home pay had been a factor in persuading Polish drivers to leave the UK.
Andy Prendergast, GMB national secretary, said the visa scheme was “like trying to put out a forest fire with a water pistol”.
She added: “It’s no surprise they aren’t queuing up to come back the country that slung them out. Changing immigration rules or relaxing drivers tests is not the way to solve the HGV shortage. Paying drivers what they know they are worth, and improving appalling conditions in the industry, is.”
European trade union leaders warned that EU drivers would be unlikely to be tempted back by the offer of a three-month visa. Edwin Artema, of the Dutch FNV Union told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “The EU workers we speak to will not go to the UK for a short-term visa to help UK out of the s*** they created themselves.
He said regulation protecting drivers was “not worth the paper it is written on because there is no enforcement and no interest to enforce it down the supply chain”.
“Drivers need way more than just a visa and a payslip. A Marshall Plan is needed for the whole of Western Europe to drag this entire industry back to the surface where it needs to be.”
Haulage firms have become increasingly desperate to fill roles as companies struggle with a shortage of skilled labour that has left supermarket shelves empty and prompted the panic buying of fuel.
One former driver, Jake Justice, who turns 90 next month, told The Independent he had recently been contacted by a recruitment agency representative who said there were good opportunities in the industry due to current shortages.
“I told him I would barely be able to climb into a cab. I retired 25 years ago,” he told The Independent.
The recruiter then suggested, after hearing Mr Justice’s age, that he would be able to help him retrain for his licence or he could drive vehicles around the yard, rather than on the road, he said. Other friends who had long retired from the industry had also been contacted by haulage firms offering them work, Mr Justice said.
Other government measures to tackle the driver shortage have so far fallen flat. The industry has been fiercely critical of an increase in the maximum number of driving hours per day from 10 to 11, as well as another plan to make remove some requirements from HGV driving tests. It is feared the changes could put drivers and other road users at risk.
Ministers are in crisis talks on Monday aimed at bringing an end to the situation, with the government expected to decide whether Army drivers are to be drafted in to deliver fuel to petrol station forecourts.