‘I will never go back. The way they treat people? Never again’

After 14 years working as a lorry driver in the UK, Zsolt Gabor hung up his keys at the end of March and went back to Hungary for good.

Conditions had become unbearable during the coronavirus pandemic, which along with the effects of Brexit has left Britain at least 90,000 truck drivers short, manifesting itself in growing supply chain problems.

Gabor said the shortage of drivers, and problems trying to find a flight back to Hungary because of pandemic restrictions, effectively meant his final shift in the UK lasted three months with only the mandatory minimum breaks. He was never off for more than 45 hours.

At the height of the pandemic that meant his lorry’s cab was his home. The final straw came when a policeman ordered him back into his truck citing lockdown restrictions. “I was not even allowed to take a walk at the end of my shift,” he said. With a bad back and a family waiting back in Hungary, Gabor decided he had had enough.

Logistics UK, the trade body for hauliers, said Britain had a chronic driver shortage for many years, but the problem was now acute. Industry leaders have called on the government to add heavy goods vehicle drivers to its shortage occupation list, which would give foreign hauliers an exemption from post-Brexit immigration rules that bar them from being hired.

The government has not completely ruled out taking action but late last month Kwasi Kwarteng, business secretary, wrote to business leaders urging them to hire UK-based workers instead, pointing out that foreign labour offered only “a short-term, temporary solution”.

Even if an exemption was granted, it seems unlikely many of those that have left the UK will return so readily. The Financial Times has spoken to dozens of eastern European HGV drivers who used to work in Britain but have gone elsewhere to work.

Many cite similar tales of poor working conditions for quitting but other reasons include poor wages compounded by a tax reform, known as IR35, that prevented most drivers from operating as limited companies, resulting in a significant cut to take-home pay.

Add to that Brexit. For truckers, that meant endless paperwork, including customs procedures they were never trained for and queues at the border. Other issues included the need to take UK driving exams that many truckers did not have the language skills for, along with a more hostile attitude to foreigners in Britain.

Moreover, Europe as a whole is short of truckers. “It is a global driver shortage across Europe, not an isolated problem of one country,” said Zsolt Barna, chief executive of Waberer’s, one of eastern Europe’s largest hauliers based in Budapest.

He pointed out that Romania, an important source of truckers for the UK over the years, was 20,000 drivers short — out of a population of 20 million.

For the EU drivers that have left but still have the right to return and live in the UK, the prospects of higher pay that some UK companies are now offering was not enough. Many said they had already found work elsewhere on higher wages and in a better working environment.

Peter Kovecs, another Hungarian, lasted two years in England. After inheriting his family’s farm he came to the UK to earn money to reinvest in the business and had planned to stay for longer. But after his experience he said nothing would tempt him back.

“They bullied us while the drivers kept coming,” Kovecs said. “Now they are begging us.” Once he had saved £60,000 he decided to go home even though that was below the target he had set himself. “I will never go back. I like England, it’s a great country, I will take the family there one day, but to work, the way they treat people? Never again.”

Krzysztof, who declined to give his surname, worked for four years in the UK before returning to Poland in 2020. His wife became pregnant and they decided they wanted the child to be raised in their homeland.

He drives trucks in Poland and Germany and has no plans to return to the UK permanently, even if the pay was better. He said IR35 was the final straw for him and many Polish drivers he knew.

“From what I know, many drivers came back [TO POLAND]because they could no longer work as independent contractors. Most of the people that I know [IN THE UK]want to come back, invest their money in Poland.”

In contrast, after living in the UK for eight years, where he worked mostly in warehouses, Jakub Burzykowski had intended to return after going home to Poland to obtain an HGV licence.

“I heard that the wages [of truck drivers] in the UK were great and there was a shortage of drivers so there shouldn’t be any problem with finding a job,” he said.

But on his return earlier this year he was refused entry and deported due to a mix-up over his right to work in the UK, known as EU settled status. He now works in Germany. “What would make Polish drivers choose the UK instead of Germany? Simplified visa procedures. From what I read, there was some pressure on the British government to simplify it, but they said no.”

He added: “I really wanted to work in the UK, I have some friends and a part of my family lives there... I miss it.”

Dan Myers, managing director of transport in UK and Ireland at XPO Logistics, urged the government to reconsider adding lorry drivers to the shortage occupation list. “As a short-term, interim solution, it’s a sensible, pragmatic way,” he said.

But Kieran Smith, chief executive of Driver Require, a recruitment agency, disagreed. “If we work on the basis of bringing back foreign workers as the solution, then we are grievously misguided,” he said, noting that it was better to focus on attracting back some of the 300,000 Brits who hold HGV licences but have quit.

He pointed to Office for National Statistics data that showed at the start of the pandemic about 40,000 of the 300,000 truck drivers in the UK were from the EU. By the end of March 2021, that figure had halved to around 20,000, but about 5,000 had returned since April.

The ONS also found that 50,000 UK-based drivers had left the profession since the pandemic began, mainly those over 45. “My hypothesis is that these older drivers had been stood down during the pandemic, or were isolating from Covid-19, and then realised they didn’t want to come back to it at their age,” he said.

For Gabor, his decision to quit trucking pushed him into driver recruitment back in Hungary after his former British employer asked him for help to find a replacement. Ultimately, though, the post-Brexit immigration rules have meant his agency, RightDriver, ended up focusing on Ireland.

He has begun tapping drivers in non-EU Balkan states, including Serbia and North Macedonia, and said if they could not work in Ireland they would be available to work in the UK. “They would just have to lift the restrictions already.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021

The Irish Times

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