Richard North, 07/10/2021  

The answer to "the present stresses and strains", which are mainly a function of growth and economic revival, is not to reach for that same old lever of uncontrolled immigration, to keep wages low, said Johnson in a spectacularly vacuous speech.

His answer is "to control immigration to allow people of talent to come to this country, but not to use immigration as an excuse for failure to invest in people, in skills and in the equipment, the facilities, the machinery they need to do their jobs".

Picking a failure to invest "entirely at random", he chose truck stops lacking "basic facilities" where you have to urinate in the bushes. An industry which equipped its truck stops with urinals was "the direction in which this country is going now", towards "a high wage, high skill, high productivity and yes, thereby low tax economy".

This was the closest he came to supporting his earlier assertion that the supply chain problems were down to "the world economy", particularly the UK economy, coming back to life after Covid, sucking in gas in particular.

Strangely, he didn't bother to repeat his claim that there was a shortage of lorry drivers around the world, "from Poland to the United States", and "even in China".

Had he been better briefed, he might have enjoyed the article in the Dutch newspaper Nieuwsuur, last Monday, published in good time to be included in his speech.

Helpfully, this is headed: "Not only the UK, the Netherlands also has a major shortage of truckers", and according to writers Rudy Bouma and Sonja Pleumeekers, the problem is getting worse. Nearly half of Dutch transport companies (46 percent) say the shortages are hampering their businesses; last quarter it was 24 percent.

And the narrative certainly supports Johnson's view. "Due to the rapidly improving economy", Bouma and Pleumeekers say, there is a demand for transport. But the real problem is that there are too few young truckers to replace retiring drivers, The new generation is simply not prepared to take on the heavy work for the modest earnings on offer, leaving no fewer than 10,000 vacancies.

Johnson might also have been comforted by the fact that it isn't only the DVLA which is causing problems. The Dutch Central Bureau for Driving Skills (CBR) had also suspended the driving tests for HGV drivers, because of Covid-19, although it has now resumed testing, while the transport industry is about to start a major recruitment campaign.

Looking at the UK situation, the writers acknowledge that we face an even greater shortage of drivers because "hardly any Eastern European truck drivers work here, and any new recruits need visas. In the Netherlands, they say, "the shelves are full because many foreign drivers are still deployed here".

What is also singularly helpful is that the Dutch paper admits that foreign drivers are exploited. Bouma and Pleumeekers note that truckers, mostly from Eastern Europe, should receive the same salary as their Dutch colleagues, but this often does not happen because of what they call "shadowy constructions" (there may be a better translation).

They cite Edwin Atema of the FNV truckers union, who says, "Normally, when there is a shortage in the market, the price goes up, but not in road transport". He claims that: "Drivers from abroad are exploited even worse by crooks, as a result of which well-intentioned carriers are out-competed". Salaries for Dutch truckers, therefore, also remain relatively low.

One example given is night driver Karel de Vos. He works 50-55 hours a week to make ends meet, and has been driving for thirty years. He sees many burned-out drivers, and offers himself as an example: "If you look at myself, you see that you are going on just too long", he says.

As with the UK, the Dutch industry is setting its stall out to recruit women as drivers. However, Atema is unimpressed. He does not expect a rush of applicants, calling the push a "plaster". First, he says, "the patient must be better diagnosed".

Karel de Vos is in no doubt that if wages go up, it will be much easier to attract recruits from other fields. But, ever the sceptic, Atema believes that there is little hope that enough new drivers will be found. "The driver shortage will be solved by exploiting foreign drivers", he says, adding that as long as this system remains in place, it is something "to be deeply ashamed of".

This walks right in to the Johnson narrative, supporting his determination to break our addiction to cheap foreign labour, and to drift wages up. And he appears to get even more support from Sören Götz, writing in the German paper Zeit. He recently told his readers: "The shortage of truck drivers in Germany could soon mean that petrol stations and shelves remain empty".

Götz, too, points to Brexit in the UK. But, he says, "actually the problem is deeper", and soon it might not only affect Great Britain. According to industry estimates, there is already a shortage of 45,000 to 60,000 truck drivers in Germany. And the position continues to deteriorate as, every year, around 30,000 drivers retire and only half are being replaced.

Yet demand is steadily increasing because more and more goods are being transported. The Federal Ministry of Transport expects that, by 2030, 20 percent more traffic will be required than in 2017.

Nevertheless, Götz suggests that there are no simple solutions. Experts, he says, may have many ideas about what needs to be improved, but they have little confidence that the deficiency can be dealt with quickly. It is not just a matter of turning a few adjusting screws. The truck driver profession has to change fundamentally.

This is perhaps less helpful to Johnson. The core problem, Götz writes, is that it is a job that demands a lot from workers in a labour market where manpower is becoming scarce. The population is ageing and baby boomers are retiring. Furthermore, for the vast majority of women, driving trucks is still out of the question: in 2017, the proportion of women was 1.7 percent.

Interestingly, the shortage of truck drivers in Germany was exacerbated by the end of compulsory military service in 2011. Before that, the military trained many heavy vehicle drivers, but since conscription ended, thousands fewer people are qualifying.

With the economy now growing, there are many vacancies for drivers. Echoing Edwin Atema, Götz notes that hauliers would advertise high wages and excellent working conditions. But that has been prevented in the logistics industry in the past few decades by international competition. According to the Federal Office for Goods Transport, foreign registered lorries completed 40 percent of the total mileage on toll roads in Germany in 2020.

And yet, in Eastern European countries, it is getting to be just as difficult to find drivers. The problem is the same as in Germany. As the economy grows, the demand for transport increases, but the population is aging and the number of people able to work is falling. To fill the gaps, drivers from the Ukraine and even from Thailand and the Philippines are increasingly being recruited.

In Germany too, though, driving has an image problem – complaints made are similar to those heard from drivers in the UK – and, indeed, in Ireland. Drivers report, for instance, that during the pandemic, they were not even allowed to use the toilets in some companies to which they delivered.

Worryingly, the federal government has been promoting the training of truck drivers since 2009, paying up to 70 percent of the costs. But the impact has been slight. Thus, the federal transport ministry is promoting the construction of new parking spaces and systems that show where parking spaces are still available.

Additionally, in April 2020, the federal government made it easier for professional drivers from abroad to get visas. Driving licences from non-EU countries are also to be recognised more easily.

For all that, there is no optimism that the problems will be solved, despite innovative plans to speed up training, recruiting "interested parties from abroad" and offering them training, paying drivers bonuses on completion of training, and equipping rest areas with better sanitary facilities and internet access.

The ultimate view is that working conditions must improve fundamentally, perhaps with logistics to be organised in such a way that lorry drivers work shorter distances and, if necessary, transfer loads to other drivers.

None of this looks good for Johnson, who seems to think that higher wages and more toilets are the answer. And even this is too much for some UK employers. According to the Financial Times, attending the conference in Manchester for some corporate leaders was a "searing ordeal". Said one senior business figure, "I can't wait to leave - I can't take these socialists any more".

One might get the feeling that this isn't going to end well.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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