Richard North, 26/08/2021  

I'm finding it extremely difficult to get worked up about the rush of publicity on the shortage of lorry drivers, and the tales of empty shelving in supermarkets.

What does irritate me, though, is the almost wilful refusal of the media and haulage industry to admit that the problem has been a long time coming, and could have been headed off at the pass in 2012, or even earlier, when it had been fully realised that there was going to be a shortage.

Instead, the industry collective did what other industries had done before them and looked for the short-term, low-cost answer, hiring cheap immigrant labour to fill the recruitment gaps.

And, with foreign drivers more willing to put up with low standards and poor employment conditions, the industry was able to stave off dealing with growing structural problems which made commercial driving an unattractive proposition for the indigenous workforce, and especially to female drivers.

For those who want to put Brexit in the frame, the EU referendum was actually in 2016, over five years ago – in case some have forgotten - and more than three years before Covid-19 struck, the other common alibi used to excuse supply problems.

If logistic firms hadn't already seen the writing on the wall, in what was already a Europe-wide problem, the referendum result should have been a wake-up call.

Long before Covid put a damper on bringing new drivers into the workforce, active measures should then have been taken to address a shortage which everybody in the industry – provider and customer – should have known was coming.

As always, though, British management has been caught out. With industry leaders and their trade associations having sat on their hands all these years, displaying the intellectual sloth that has been a feature of British industry since well before the war, they are returning to form, calling for a relaxation of post-Brexit visa rules as a quick-fix, to compensate for their own inadequacies.

Similar problems arise in food production industries, where wages are not only low and conditions dire, but jobs have been structured around the use of immigrant workers that take no account of the needs and practices of the indigenous workforce.

And so we get special pleading from a billionaire factory owner, wedded to the low wage, immigrant culture, who wants to reverse the verdict of Brexit and pull in cheap labour from wherever he can get it, despite running roughshod over labour rights.

One need only to be reminded of the 2008 House of Lords report on the "Economic Impact of Immigration", which stated:
Immigration encouraged as a "quick fix" in response to perceived labour and skills shortages reduces employers’ incentives to consider and invest in alternatives. It will also reduce domestic workers' incentives to acquire the training and skills necessary to do certain jobs. Consequently, immigration designed to address short term shortages may have the unintended consequence of creating the conditions that encourage shortages of local workers in the longer term.
Now there is even talk of using prisoners to plug the worker shortage in the meat industry, a proposal which is so far from reality that one wonders whether industry leaders still live on this planet.

None of them can have visited prison kitchens, where prisoners are employed to prepare and cook food for their fellow inmates. Had they done so, they would have noted how careful the selection of trustees is, so restrictive that prison caterers are often complaining of a shortage of staff.

Then there is the constant supervision of specialist prison officers, the extreme measures taken to issue and control the use of knives, and the checks applied after each shift to make sure all are returned.

It is one thing to employ time-served prisoner, on their release, but industry leaders want serving prisoners to work with sharp knives in conditions where the same controls and supervision can't be applied, and hope they don't slaughter each other, or their supervisors. Good luck with that.

But just to ramp up the pressure – and divert attention from their own incompetence and lack of forward planning – industry leaders are stoking up concerns about Christmas supplies, a ploy that can only set off panic buying and bounce the government into taking action.

Needless to say, the scare stories are being given plenty of prominence in an uncritical legacy media, complete with tales of woe about shortages of chicken products and milkshakes in high street outlets.

One comment of great interest comes from Steve Murrells, the Co-operative Group chief executive, who complains that shortages are "at a worse level than at any time I have seen", telling us that the company had reduced several ranges on offer in stores. But only now is it retraining members of staff to drive lorries.

But what makes this of such interest is that the Co-op used to operate a network of its own slaughterhouses, so that none of its retail outlets were any great distance from a provider. This I know, as I actually trained in one, in the early 70s.

Now, in common with more than a thousand others, there have been closed down under the writ of EU law, the implementation of which has made it uneconomic to run medium-sized slaughterhouses in this country.

With a similar scourge affecting turkey production, the reliance on massive, remote processing plants has created distribution stressed that never existed when production was more dispersed and localised.

Brexit, therefore, has created the idea opportunity to restructure both the red meat and the poultry industries, returning production and processing to more localised and sustainable sites. Bizarrely, though, in one of the best equipped slaughterhouses I ever saw, operations were made so difficult by the regulatory authorities that the owner sold up, and the site was turned into a supermarket.

In anticipation of entirely predictable post-Brexit problems, the government could have done something to reduce the regulatory load and encourage the rebuilding of the industry networks. Instead, the Johnson administration has done nothing, other than make vets a shortage occupation, for which immigration is permitted – thereby exacerbating the problem.

On this, though, the legacy media is largely giving the government a free pass, although the Guardian wants to pin the blame on government for the rest of industry's problems.

Predictably – with a complete lack of subtlety and nuance, it is blaming the government for "the hard Brexit that is sabotaging Britain's recovery". That, it says, was a choice, sold energetically – and dishonestly – to the public by the current prime minister. Thus, it concludes, that financial costs of the present crises might be borne by consumers and businesses, "but the blame belongs to Boris Johnson".

Hard put as I am to pass by an opportunity to blame Johnson for just about all our woes, we see that ministers appear unwilling to give way on visas. The government, we are told, insists that employers need to do more to recruit and retain British workers.

According to a Home Office spokesperson, "The British people repeatedly voted to end free movement and take back control of our immigration system. Employers should invest in our domestic workforce instead of relying on labour from abroad".

This from Priti Patel's department that is letting in the dinghy people by the thousands. Perhaps we should meet the industry half way, and only let illegal immigrants enter if they have current HGV licences.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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