The Government’s plan to tempt thousands of European lorry drivers to return to the UK has been attacked as a “sticking plaster” which will do little or nothing to resolve the current crisis.
Union leaders representing transport workers in the UK and across Europe said the problem, which has sparked chaos at petrol stations for days, follows years of “supressing” pay and conditions in the industry.
They pointed out that other European countries are also being hit by a shortage of lorry drivers, so do not expect a flood of workers returning to the UK after leaving, often as a result of Brexit.
Andy Prendergast, national officer of the GMB union, told the PA news agency: “Five years ago this country basically told European truck drivers to get on their bike.
“Now we’re in a crisis and we are desperate to welcome them back with open arms. It’s no surprise they aren’t queuing up to come back to the country that slung them out.
“Changing immigration rules or relaxing drivers’ tests is not the way to solve the HGV shortage. Paying drivers what they know they are worth, and improving appalling conditions in the industry, is.”
Unite general secretary Sharon Graham told PA: “The idea this crisis can be solved by ‘sticking-plaster’ solutions like issuing 5,000 three-month visas to workers from other countries is ludicrous.
“At the heart of today’s crisis is a long-standing push by the employers to suppress wages for lorry drivers and the unacceptable way drivers are treated and disrespected throughout the industry.
“The employers now have to address the issues around pay and conditions, if they want more workers to sign up as lorry drivers.
“Unite plans a national consultation with lorry drivers in the union to establish an agreed set of demands to be put to the haulage industry employers.
“The union intends to deal with this issue for the long-term not just for the short-term. We intend to drive a national campaign to match this.”
Frank Moreels, president of the European Transport Workers’ Federation, said of the Government’s move: “It’s a nice try, but it won’t work.”
He told PA: “Giving out temporary visas will not fix things. There needs to be fundamental reforms to improve pay and conditions in the industry and make the job more respected.
“It is a big challenge for the industry, which faces a shortage of drivers across Europe.”
There were 120,000 vacancies for lorry drivers in Poland and up to 65,000 in Germany, while the average age of workers was often over 50, he said.
Unions including Unite have been campaigning for years for better pay and conditions such as more refreshment and toilet facilities for drivers.
London mayor Sadiq Khan said shortages in labour across the economy were the result of Government policy failures in relation to Brexit and training.
“What you are seeing over the course of the last few days and weeks with the crisis of labour in the haulage industry is something we are seeing in other sectors of our economy,” he told a fringe event at the Labour Party conference.
“From haulage to hospitality, from culture to construction, I’m afraid you are seeing the chicks coming home in relation to the Government’s policy in relation to a hard Brexit.
“And you are seeing, I’m afraid, a knee-jerk reaction by the Government, with these 5,000 visas being offered to EU drivers to come back and help us.
“You can’t spend five years slagging off the EU and slagging off EU citizens, and then expect them to come back and bail us out.”