LONDON – With dry gas stations and empty grocery shelves, the UK government is offering 5,000 temporary visas to foreign truckers to prevent an impending crisis before Christmas.
But despite this potentially lucrative offer, many truckers who left the country after leaving the European Union say they have no plans to solve a problem partly fueled by the aftermath of Brexit.
Artur Jarzebski says he will not work in the UK because he no longer feels welcome in the UK after Brexit.
“English society has decided the Poles are not worth enough to stay in the UK,” said Jarzebski, 42, a Polish trucker who has spent a decade working long hours on UK motorways. “After Brexit, Polish drivers feel unwanted in the UK market.”
The UK faces the same supply chain problems as the US and Europe. Older truckers are retiring and teenagers who may be rethinking their lives amid the Covid-19 pandemic don’t want to work long hours or get back on the road, which is lonely and not conducive to social relationships.
The virus made matters worse, delaying tests for new drivers and making it difficult to move goods from one country to another. But Britain is being weighed down by another factor: Brexit.
After the vote, an estimated 20,000 truckers went back to Europe and never returned.
According to industry representatives, there is currently a shortage of around 100,000 truck drivers in the UK. In the past few days, this has been reflected in tangled pipes in front of gas stations because there are not enough licensed drivers to deliver fuel from refineries. The problem was exacerbated by panic buying.
Some supermarket shelves are also empty, and a labor shortage in the food industry, partly due to Covid and the Brexit exodus, is starting to bite.
As a sign of how bad things are, the British government will use the military “in the next few days” to operate gas tankers, Economy Minister Kwasi Kwarteng told reporters on Wednesday.
The government is also trying to speed up driver training. And it offers the 5,000 temporary visas for the three months to December 24th and 5,500 visas for poultry workers.
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For the Brexit critics, there is a certain irony behind it. The vote to leave the EU was motivated in part by a desire to curb immigration and prevent as many foreign workers as possible from competing for British jobs. Now Britain is in trouble and wants foreign workers to save it.
Demand has driven truckers’ wages up. But many European drivers say that it is not worth moving to another country outside the EU for three months. Others are unhappy that their vital role in the supply chain is only now being recognized after it has been taken for granted for decades.
In addition to the feeling that Brexit revealed the inhospitable side of Great Britain, some motorists are also drawn by the memory of last Christmas: More than 6,000 trucks got stuck in front of the English port city of Dover after France closed its border to Covid’s Kent variant contain.
Thousands of drivers had to sleep in their taxis on Christmas Day.
“I have friends from Lithuania and the Czech Republic, and they told me there was no point in working on just a three-month visa,” said Mateusz Ozimek, 31, a trucker who was born in Krakow, Poland and now lives in London. “The money is quite decent, but the way they treated us last Christmas is not forgotten.”
“You have to keep in mind that the drivers spend most of their time alone. They always remember when someone has harmed them,” he added.
Although many industry representatives and experts say that Brexit exacerbated the crisis, most agree that this is only one of several causes.
In the US, the number of people working in the trucking industry also fell sharply when the pandemic broke out, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That has since recovered, but the workforce is still around 26,000 below pre-pandemic levels.
The same is true in Europe. According to Benoit Lefere, a spokesman for the Belgian logistics union UPTR, the UK could struggle to fill its 5,000 temporary visas with European drivers as there are in fact bottlenecks across the continent as well.
“Brexit has meant the UK is facing this problem now – but Europe will face the same problem just a few years later,” he said. “Perhaps the UK will have found a solution by then.”