Lorry drivers are planning a nationwide strike over their working conditions, prompting warnings that this would magnify food shortages and cripple the country’s already creaking supply chains.
Hauliers are proposing a “stay at home” day next month in response to low pay and working terms, an event designed to compound the effect of the UK’s lorry-driver shortage , which last week led to widespread stock shortages. However the Road Haulage Association, which represents commercial road haulage companies and has more than 7,000 members, warned drivers against taking action saying it would make a “bad situation worse” and severely disrupt automated chains.
So far the “stay at home” action on 23 August has attracted nearly 3,000 HGV drivers with another 340 joining last week. Lorry driver Mark Schubert said: “For far too many years we have been ignored, exploited and taken for granted. Now our time has come, now we have a window of opportunity to be listened to.”
Speaking on Friday afternoon from a traffic jam on the way to Norwich, Schubert added that he had never seen such momentum for change in his near 40-year career as a driver.
“We are trying to send a message that drivers are thoroughly fed up with the way they are treated by employers. Yet as long as stuff’s on the shelf, people don’t seem to give a damn about us.”
However Kate Gibbs of the RHA cautioned against any action that may heighten the effect of driver shortages, itself compounded by the “pingdemic”, which has seen food supply-chains hit as workers self-isolate.
Even the exemption of about 10,000 workers at 500 food distribution centres from quarantine does not appear to have offset the effect of the current shortage of 100,000 lorry drivers. On Friday, the supermarkets Asda, Tesco and Sainsbury’s began asking suppliers for extra payments to cover the costs of raising wages for delivery drivers in a desperate move to offset shortages.
Gibbs said: “We understand the drivers’ frustration but downing tools is not the way forward. We don’t want to make a bad situation worse. A supply chain that runs like clockwork only requires the tiniest thing to throw it out completely.
“If you think things are bad now it’ll just make things so much worse.”
Last week, the government unveiled plans to help tackle the lorry driver crisis, including easing driver qualification requirements and improved working conditions. However Schubert is among those who believe these not only fail to tackle the sector’s concerns but could also take at least six months to take effect, failing to tackle the threat of food shortages this summer.
He also said that the effects of Brexit, which is believed to have forced around 25,000 truckers to return to the EU, had been underscored by the Home Office’s hardline posturing since. “Looking at the way [the home secretary] Priti Patel and her cohorts in the Home Office treat foreigners, they’re not going to be overly keen on coming back,” he said.
“Even if they can, are they going to be treated like criminals when they arrive at the border? This issue can’t be solved overnight. Even if you allow east European drivers on short-term work visas this is going to take six months to two years to fix.”