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HGV driver says training more Brits won’t solve awful working conditions

Suella Braverman wants to cut migration by training British people to be lorry drivers, butchers and fruit pickers

Anita Mureithi
16 May 2023, 3.29pm

Workers in 'invisible industries' deserve more pay and better conditions, an HGV driver says


JUSTIN TALLIS / Contributor

A lorry driver has said Suella Braverman’s plan to end reliance on foreign workers by training more Brits ignores the awful working conditions putting people off the job.

The home secretary told attendees at the National Conservatism Conference in London that more British people should be trained as HGV (heavy goods vehicle) drivers, butchers and fruit pickers to fix severe labour shortages, rather than relying on overseas workers.

She said “there is no good reason” the UK can’t train its own workforce.

But a Scottish lorry driver of 30 years who regularly has to go to the toilet outside thinks Braverman is missing the point.

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“I just think it really is a relatively simple fix – improve the terms and conditions, and improve facilities,” said Paul*.

He told openDemocracy that it’s the long hours and poor conditions that stop people applying for jobs in his industry – not, as Braverman put it, Brits forgetting “how to do things for ourselves”.

But Paul, a Unite union rep, doubts the government has any real interest in trying to improve conditions for workers, adding: “I think they are looking at it like I'm just a lorry driver.”

Despite drivers requiring a Certificate of Professional Competence qualification, spending 30 plus hours in a classroom every five years to stay qualified and, in many cases, working all the way through the Covid-19 pandemic, Paul told openDemocracy the home secretary’s comments come from a lack of recognition of the hard work involved.

“We are an invisible industry… I genuinely don't think the industry as a whole gets enough recognition.”

So what would help fill the vacancies?

“A decent rate of pay would be a good start,” said Paul. Having lost countless weekends to long hours on the road and an average salary of £35,000 a year, he said current wages aren’t enough to compensate for missed time with family.

On top of this, Paul said, are the horrific facilities for HGV drivers.

Lack of lay-by space on some roads, or overcrowded parking in some service stations, means someone who has been driving a lorry for hours may have “nowhere to go to the toilet, nowhere to wash [their] hands, and nowhere to eat a hot meal”.

“It's not nice to have to use the toilet outside. But that's the reality of a lorry driver who for all intents and purposes, has to take baby wipes with him,” Paul said.

Employers are publishing billions and billions in profit. And that's not being shared

Even when there is space for HGV drivers to stop and use the toilet or grab something to eat, Paul has found they’re not always 24/7 – an obvious problem for drivers who work night shifts.

“I work for a supermarket chain,” he continued. “Employers are publishing billions and billions in profit. And that's not being shared… the benefits are going to shareholders and they’re exploiting the immigration side of it.

“I have many examples of representing Eastern European workers because they either don't have the appropriate driving skills and they end up having an accident, [or] they are that desperate to earn money that they can send home, that they’re [willing] to do the long hours culture.”

In a 2021 campaign, members of Unite spoke about the awful conditions faced by lorry drivers.

“In one truck stop there were three or four Romanian drivers parked up and they were heating up potatoes in a pot on an open fire in water drawn from the river,” he added. “They couldn't afford to go to the shops and services to buy a sandwich. They had to keep their money to send it home to their families in Romania, and so they were living on potatoes.”

For Paul, until conditions are improved, people won’t want to apply for jobs, regardless of where they’re from. “The government tried in 2021, and it couldn’t recruit 5,000 foreign workers,” he said.

This was when, during severe fuel and food shortages, Boris Johnson’s government announced 5,000 visas would be granted to lorry drivers from abroad. About 300 people applied.

“That is a statement in itself, that they couldn't recruit 5,000 foreign workers because the foreign workers didn’t want to come here. Because they knew the terms and conditions were terrible,” he added.

Workers on farms are also experiencing terrible conditions. Last week, the House of Lords Horticultural Sector Committee heard from researchers about exploitation faced by workers on the UK’s seasonal worker visa scheme.

In a survey of living conditions for farm workers, it was found that only 73% of people reported having access to a working toilet, while only 39% said they felt safe in their accommodation.

Addressing the committee, Kate Roberts, head of policy at Focus on Labour Exploitation said: “Compounded by this are the barriers to seeking help… 28% of people just didn’t know where to get help. These factors combine to create a very risky situation…”

Adis Sehic, policy and research officer at Work Rights Centre also told the committee: “The most common complaints or form of exploitation that we see is probably around incorrect pay and also in relation to continuity of employment… Tied into that, there is the charging of illegal recruitment fees… I would also add standards of accommodation are quite a frequent complaint that we get.”

Sehic cited complaints of discrimination on the basis of nationality and instances where people have either been refused transfers to other farms, or have been granted one under specific conditions, such as having the right amount of cash available – something that might pose an extra challenge for workers who have already incurred large costs.

*Name changed to protect his identity

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