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Who’d be a lorry driver?


IN THE days before search engines ruled, business journalists would spend most days with people in the trade about which they reported. Some hacks would get delusions of expertise, which annoys the hell out of the people who actually work in those industries. But there was an upside: by holding their noses and spending time with journalists, each sector would reap an empathy dividend when they were being reported on.

There’s no time for that sort of thing now. The copy has to be fed online ASAP to some impatient algorithms. Nobody gives a monkey’s about events and individuals, it’s all about ‘narratives’ which are supplied by a few anointed spokespeople.

When editing a newsletter for importers and exporters, I thought I’d revert to old-school journalism and actually talk to people, out of respect for what they do. These traders are the ones trying to give the economy mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. The media are people holding their mobile phone cameras to the scene, trying to get something for their YouTube channel.

One of this month’s stories is about the critical shortage of lorry drivers. Thanks to lazy British workers, runs the ‘narrative’, our economy is missing a backbone. It’s all the fault of Brexit, they say.

The misreporting of this story is a story in itself. Tesco, says the digital media, has ‘admitted’ exposure to the Brexit-driven lorry driver shortage. As if poor Tesco has opened its heart to Oprah about its troubles. Vulnerability is a strength! We all know who the real baddies are: Brexit, toxic masculinity and GB News.

Won’t someone think of the children? Hashtag Hope Not, Hate.

Most of the reporting on this story was identical. All the same media mouthpieces were quoted. The media always quote the heads of big associations. In turn, they always have a list of demands for the government.

Nobody ever speaks to the lorry drivers. Britain is short of 100,000 lorry drivers. Why not ask one of them why there aren’t working? You get a very different story from them.

They wouldn’t even have to look far to find one to interview. Here is the perspective of a camera rigger who was forced go back to lorry driving for temporary work during the lockdown, when there was no work on live TV.

‘Why would I spend £4,000 to get my HGV qualifications to earn £12 an hour [the going rate at agencies] and operate in a very tax-disadvantageous regime and terrible work conditions?’ 

Few trucks have air conditioning, a toilet or a fridge, and yet employers expect the drivers to live in the cab. While you’re held up in Calais you have to watch out for desperadoes who will break in to the truck. If they do, it’s the driver who will spend hours in interrogation.

Then there’s IR35, a government tax initiative that’s made things worse for contractors.

Drivers say this is the major reason for the shortage. An older driver said he couldn’t go on to PAYE as it would affect his pension. So he, and many others of his age, retired.

There are a lot of drivers of retirement age who were originally trained for their HGV licences in the armed forces, says Greg Crane, transport manager with Hickman Transport. The ex-Army drivers who fed the haulage industry are no longer a source of labour and, thanks to government meddling, the existing drivers at retirement age are going. Eastern Europe is not an option for recruitment any more. ‘Europe has the same problems as us,’ said Crane. ‘We’ve taken all the drivers we can from them.’

The people who blame Brexit are cynical opportunists because those in the industry have been suffering for 20 years.

It’s over-regulated and yet more dangerous than ever. Drivers work harder but get paid less. Every time the government get involved, they make it worse, because they speak to all the wrong people. ‘Every time the government get involved, they employ a fresh set of consultants, who create a new silly scheme, with clocks and compliances and forms and registrations. It just creates new problems,’ says Crane.

Just in case anyone in government does want to know, here is more feedback from the people who are quitting the industry. They probably know more about this broken link in the supply chain than Dido Harding.

‘Lots of guys getting £15 an hour when self-employed and working through an agency would never accept £12 an hour once they were forced to go PAYE, so they left to go elsewhere,’ said one.

Since IR35 many foreign drivers have left for better money in Holland and Switzerland, another said.

One reported that a secure air cargo firm employed two Polish drivers for a shift of two weeks on, two weeks off. They lived in the lorry for two weeks, got a cheap flight home, and did casual work until it was time to come back to the UK. ‘How much tax do they bring into this country?’ The driver claimed the Polish counterparts were claiming all the UK benefits for the family back home.

The big employers want a cheap source of labour and the government only speaks to big companies. (Whatever happened to small c conservatism?)

The problem is with the haulage companies’ cheap sources of foreign labour, UK lorry drivers say.

‘They work every hour under the sun, so there are loads of rotten drivers and loads breaking the laws,’ reports one driver. ‘Many companies refuse to take on Poles, Czech or Romanians,’ he claimed, ‘as too much damage has been done over the years. Insurance is too expensive.’

When drivers have little or no English there are big problems if there is a breakdown or they are lost. Meanwhile big ‘brands’ all want to pay the minimum wage for maximum hours to people who have no family here and will happily live in a lorry cabin for 90 hours a week.

Lorry drivers are integral to our import and exports. They pay a fortune to get themselves trained, and they do more to get the economy going than any number of Hancock’s Half-Wits.

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Nick Booth
Nick Booth
Nick Booth is a freelance writer.

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