Europe’s looming truck driver gap undermines UK appeals

Land Transport

Source: Politico, 2021-09-27

A shortage of truck drivers isn't just a British problem.

That adds to the difficulties for the UK government's emergency effort to rescue the country from supply chain chaos by offering European truckers short-term visas.

Gas stations across the UK are running out of fuel after supply turmoil led to panic buying — adding to empty supermarket shelves, a McDonald's milkshake drought, missing peri-peri chicken and shortfalls in blood testing equipment. Much of the blame is placed on the sudden exit of thousands foreign drivers due to Brexit and the pandemic, as well as a backlog in drivers' tests. 

That prompted the UK government over the weekend to offer 5,000 temporary work visas for drivers — who would be able to work in Britain until December 24 and, having delivered Christmas, would then have to high-tail it home.

But the announcement hasn't garnered a lot of enthusiasm on the Continent.

"The EU workers we speak to will not go to the UK for a short-term visa to help the UK out of the shit they created themselves," Edwin Atema of the Dutch Federation of Trade Unions told BBC Radio 4. "Drivers need way more than a visa and a payslip." 

The EU is grappling with a driver shortage of its own. The problem existed in both the UK and the EU even before the pandemic — in 2019 some 24% of trucker positions were unfilled in the UK, while 22% were unfilled in Poland, according to the International Road Transport Organisation (IRU.) In the Czech Republic, 21% were unfilled; in Spain, 20%.

The lockdowns caused more chaos, with many drivers initially forced out of work, leaving the industry scrambling to fill jobs as economies reopened.

That risks making an already bad situation worse. Grueling work conditions mean the sector struggles to attract young workers, spelling trouble when large numbers of truckers start retiring. With the average age of a European truck driver at 44, that's not too far in the future. 

"If the conditions causing the driver shortage are not properly addressed ... the situation will deteriorate," said Raluca Marian, EU Advocacy Director at IRU.

It's "easy to calculate an apocalyptic scenario" for the EU based on what is happening in the UK, she added. 

The perfect storm causing massive shortages across the Channel is, in many ways, unique to the UK

Britain's trucking industry relied on thousands of drivers from the EU, mainly from Central and Eastern Europe, who went home during the pandemic and many haven't been able to get back into a post-Brexit UK Tax changes affecting self-employed drivers' income have also made the prospect even less attractive.

But truckers also cite worsening conditions and what they describe as a lack of respect as reasons to leave the profession.

“Fundamentally … drivers are worn out, they’re tired and fed up with being treated the way they are,” said Adrian Jones, National Officer of the British and Irish trade union Unite. 

A similar dynamic is driving workers away in the EU.

"This job is not appealing," said Pantelimon Octavian Tetileanu, a long-haul trucker from Romania. "You cannot be with your family. There's no time for lunch, no time for breakfast, or for dinner. You go to sleep in sweat because we are not taking a shower on the highway every day. You don't wash your clothes. You're mostly dirty and you smell."

Security issues also make the job dangerous, he added, citing attacks by migrants trying to get to Britain and fuel theft as major concerns.

Tetileanu, an ex-teacher, has driven a truck for the past decade. Now he's counting the days until he can quit the trade. "I'm doing this job another two years, and goodbye industry — goodbye. This is not a place where I want to get old."

Increasingly, the only people willing to put up with the worsening conditions are drivers coming from outside the EU, including Russia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, said Cristina Tilling, Political Secretary for transport workers’ federation ETF.

The problem starts with the rates that road freight companies charge for their services, she said, which aren't high enough to cover "a legal labor cost," including salaries and driver accommodation. 

As drivers like Tetileanu look to quit or retire, the industry is under increasing pressure to renew its workforce. But it's a real struggle to find new drivers.

Transport companies cite the sector's poor image, regulatory hurdles and high training costs as a barrier to attracting new recruits — particularly among women, migrants and young people who they say represent an untapped resource.

Hegelmann Poland has set up its own training program and promises to cover the licensing costs for new drivers and guarantees them a job. It also promises to help Ukrainians and Belarusians with paperwork needed to work legally in Poland, which is short about 120,000 drivers.

Benny Smets, the CEO of Belgian transportation company Ninatrans, which also has branches in France, the Netherlands, and Germany, said it's become "much harder" to fill vacancies. With the shortage leaving some trucks unmanned, "it's never been worse than today," he said.

Some Belgian companies are employing foreign drivers, he said, but "the pool of Romanian drivers is also gradually drying up."

The situation may not be as bad as in the UK, but the driver shortage "as it stands now, is so dramatic that I think ... we'll have to tell some clients 'no,'" Smets warned. 

Besides improved working conditions, fixes could include lowering the minimum required age for driving a truck and creating a single permit to integrate non-EU workers in the bloc's labor market, said IRU's Marian. Recognising driving licenses from third countries is “another avenue,” she added.

Industry and transport worker groups have also called for more parking areas where drivers can safely rest or access basic services amid reports of theft and violence. The bloc is short an estimated 100,000 parking spots. Fewer than 3% of existing parking spaces are certified safe and secure.

Ultimately, it comes down to making the job more attractive to potential drivers, according to Jones from Unite. That means more pay, better work schedules and safe parking spaces, he said.

“We need to deal with the simple fact that if you speak to a driver now, they would not be recommending to their children or other people to become a driver," he said. "And when the existing workforce aren’t advocates for their job, what chance do you stand in getting people to go into the industry?”


back to ECG news