Inadequate, immoral, flawed: Why the government’s latest policy to address HGV driver crisis will not work

Short-term, insecure visas that expire on Christmas Eve are an insult to migrant workers

The UK has been plunged into a petrol crisis with long queues hitting forecourts. Shortages at the pump caused by a lack of HGV drivers have been deepened by panic buying, sparking a vicious cycle. The Petrol Retailers Association have estimated that somewhere between 50% and 90% of petrol forecourts have now run dry.

Facing this acute pressure – and with Christmas only three months away – the government has announced an emergency short-term visa for HGV drivers. They hope to get 5,000 HGV-qualified drivers to the UK for a period of three months. With no right to reside in the UK attached to the new visa, workers would return to their home countries on Christmas Eve.

But will the workers come? Here are some reasons why the latest policy is unlikely to work.

  1. Even in its own terms, the proposal is inadequate

In the unlikely (see below) event that the government are able to secure 5,000 qualified applicants for the short-term visa programme, it will not be enough to address the shortage.

The Road Haulage Association has estimated that the UK is short of around 100,000 drivers. While this disruption to the labour market has been made worse by COVID-19, even prior to the pandemic the shortage was estimated at 60,000. Simple maths dictates that the government is applying a sticking plaster to a chronic problem – that falls woefully short of what is needed.

  1. The government doesn’t understand the crisis

There is a pattern of government response to the HGV driver shortage that shows they fundamentally do not understand the causes of the crisis – and are ideologically opposed to the remedies that could actually alleviate the problem. As we covered on Brexit Spotlight, the government’s initial reaction to the HGV driver shortage was a dangerous attack on health and safety, raising the legal limit on daily driving hours from 9 to 10 hours (with two drives of 11 hours permitted twice a week, rather than the 10 hours that the rules currently state).

You do not need specialist knowledge of the industry to realise the obvious problem with this rule change. By making the working day (and week) longer, in an already tough, physically draining job, the role immediately became both more dangerous and less attractive. Bosses organisations and unions alike united to condemn the policy, warning it would ‘make an already difficult situation worse’. Sure enough, two months later the crisis rumbles on.

This also creates a problem for the new visa system. The EU policy has been moving in the opposite direction – making modest but real steps to improve HGV drivers’ working conditions. So why would EU HGV drivers come to work in the UK, where the cost of living is higher than many other European countries and the working conditions getting worse?

So, the government has shown it doesn’t understand the source of the crisis. It needs a 180 degree turn in policy: backing higher pay and a reduced working week for HGV drivers.

  1. The short-term visa system is also extremely unattractive

The proposed visa system for HGV drivers is also extremely unattractive. Modelled on the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Visa (see our briefing on this here) the new scheme is likely to reproduce the problems associated with it – where employers often take advantage of workers’ lack of security in immigration status to exploit them. Workers on these visas must return to their home country at the end of the term and face significant limits on their ability to move from one employer to the next (violating the basic freedom to change employer).

The government is realising that it needs migrant workers. But intends to use short-term visas that give them far fewer rights than the old system of EU freedom of movement. This is a recipe for what critics of freedom of movement often alleged that it did: a second class migrant labour force, with far fewer rights than UK workers, vulnerable to super-exploitation.

  1. European HGV drivers remember last Christmas

Last Christmas many HGV drivers from the European Union were also caught up in the COVID border chaos – with some 1,000 HGV drivers stuck in Kent, sometimes thousands of miles from their families without access to food and basic washing facilities. As the UK’s reputation with these workers is extremely low, it is arrogant to imagine they are desperate to return for more of the same. The government would need to put together an attractive offer – thrashing out a plan between union and bosses to improve pay and conditions for all workers.

  1. The driver shortage isn’t the only factor in the supply chain chaos

Brexiters have been keen to point out that the UK is not the only country in Europe facing a severe shortage of HGV drivers. This is true. Germany has a shortage of 45,000 drivers. Poland – whose population is about half that of the UK – is also short of around 124,000 drivers. On the one hand, this reinforces the point that if the UK government want to attract European drivers into the domestic workforce, it needs to make an attractive, credible offer.

On the other hand, these countries have not faced the same supply chain crisis as the UK. Why not? The reason lies in the EU system of cabotage, a term that simply means the right to operate across different territorial jurisdictions. In haulage this refers to dropping goods off in one country with a vehicle registered in another country – and is contrasted to cross-trade (loading goods in one country and unloading them in another country). Under this system EU haulage firms can operate from country-to-country under the same rules, picking up, for example, fruit in Hungary for Germany when dropping off dairy products from France.

This creates more flexibility in the system, allowing resources to be allocated across territories more efficiently, offsetting the labour shortage. In contrast, now UK drivers doing jobs in the EU (and EU drivers in the UK) are limited to doing one cabotage job following a cross-trade. So, they can move goods from London to Berlin and can do one further job on the EU-side, but no more than that – reducing the overall efficiency of their journey. So, although facing labour shortages, EU states are making better use of the workers they have.

Beyond this, there is also the general increase in paperwork to carry out cross-border trade from the UK to EU. As one trade expert has put it: ‘the government chose to raise trade barriers by a level unprecedented for a modern developed economy in the middle of pandemic induced supply chain strains, without any sense this might lead to problems.’


So, what should happen?

These criticisms also point to the principles that could underpin an alternative policy:

  • Develop a plan with unions to raise pay and cut working hours for HGV drivers, improving safety, reducing the pressures of the job and recruiting more workers.
  • A rights-based immigration system – restoring freedom of movement with the EU and linking it to a new agenda to improve the employment protections of all workers.
  • A single-market style deal with the EU to deal with the supply chain crisis and crippling bureaucracy that is driving the economic chaos we see in the UK economy.