HGVs: 20 things we didn’t know about the people stocking our shelves and forecourts

by Anita Graafland

If, like me, you’ve been somewhat taken aback by the empty shelves and lack of fuel in our forecourts in the country, especially if you regularly visit the continent, where shelves are groaning with products and fuel may be expensive but is very much available, you must have wondered what exactly is going on. Considered somewhat of an expert on the UK by my friends in Amsterdam, they pressed me for the reasons behind this mess. I refer them to Orynski.

Tomasz Orynski, a Polish journalist and trucker, has been extensively quoted in the UK press, but none of them referred to the source. Luckily for us, West Country Bylines published his essay in its entirety, after which also I managed to track it down on his website.

Here’s a quick recap of the reasons he cited, many of which were real eye-openers, I thought:

  1. Brexit itself
    EU trucks were responsible for a lot of internal UK transport, picking up loads to take from one spot in the UK to another, to avoid driving empty. Cabotage rules is what Tomasz tells us these are called. Fewer EU trucks means fewer loads, so British trucks – and drivers – have to step up.
  2. Brexit’s red tape
    Custom clearances and border controls. And no trained staff to process at the UK end. In Tomasz’s words: “Many EU companies just gave up on taking freight to Britain altogether. Why would they keep coming here, if they have 27 other countries to shift the goods between, virtually border-free and with only the very basic paperwork?”
  3. Covid
    Britain’s chaotic response to coronavirus means that EU drivers aren’t keen to take on jobs in the UK, also given the dehumanising conditions they suffered last Christmas.
  4. Migrant situation in Calais
    An issue that hadn’t crossed my mind, to be honest, but drivers are between a rock and a hard place when dealing with illegal migrants attempting to get into their trucks: if they “play police”, they may be injured or even killed. But if they risk having a stowaway on board, they can be arrested for facilitating illegal entry. As Tomasz says: “No surprise that I hear more and more drivers, who when taking on new jobs demand guarantees from their employers that they won’t be sent to the UK.”
  5. Brexit (again)
    Tomasz: “Let’s be honest. With broken promises, settled status or the need for visas, a hostile environment and the risk of being detained at the border, not many EU drivers would choose to work in Britain anymore – imagine you are a Polish driver. Would you rather come to Britain and jump through all the hoops, or choose any of the well-paying EU countries, for example, Germany that, if you live in Western Poland, is just a short drive across (virtually non-existent thanks to Schengen) border?”
  6. Low wages
    Truck driving jobs used to be paid better than minimum wage; now you’re lucky if it’s 20% more. Meanwhile, pay rates have got better in Eastern Europe, especially factoring in cost of living, and Western European and Nordic countries are very welcoming, at good rates. Tomasz: “There is simply a very little financial incentive for Eastern European drivers to come to Britain anymore.”
  7. Systematic discrimination
    DVLA turning EU licence holders into second-class drivers by moving the penalty point system online. And British driving licences no longer being valid in the EU. Residency status checks make competing for the best jobs more cumbersome.
  8. Everyday discrimination
    Tomasz: “If you were European, would you really want to come to the country where at every little step – from dealing with Home Office and Border Forces to the trip to your local pub – you can be reminded in a very clear manner that you’re not welcome here?”
  9. Money
    For British people there are better careers available without the excessive entry requirements. “So why would one save up a grand to become a truck driver and do hard work for long hours at the pay comparable to a shop assistant in Aldi, if there is plenty of college courses and apprenticeships that help the candidate to become a plumber or an electrician with much higher earning potential?”
  10. Being a driver is no fun any more
    Hard graft for companies that save as much as possible on vehicles; no freedom to decide your own route and your driving style under constant surveillance. And the long-distance jobs are becoming sparse. More repetitive jobs between distribution centres and shops.
  11. Constant surveillance
    I found this bit shocking, to be honest, and will only quote Tomasz heartfelt comment: “Meanwhile, drivers will have a camera pointed at their face at all times. The cameras, which they cannot control, will be installed in the space where they undress, sleep, eat, etc. – as for many drivers their cab is also their home. And everyone expects they will be perfectly OK with it.”
  12. Drivers are one of the most srtictly controlled jobs around
    Tomasz: “Even minor infringements to driver’s working time, if regular (which is not hard to occur, as drivers are pressed to max their driving hours in unpredictable traffic and the availability of safe parking spots for them to take their breaks is very limited) can incur hefty fines and the vehicle might end up impounded which – if we remember this is the driver’s home when on the road and his only mean of transport – means that the driver becomes stranded together with it.”
  13. Health and safety gone crazy
    You’ll have to read this section yourself. His examples beggar belief.
  14. Nobody respects drivers. They are constantly shouted at , humiliated and suspected of being thieves
    Well, this speaks for itself. Check out the driver held in a cage while waiting – and then his employer lost the contract when he posted it online!
  15. Lack of facilities for truck drivers
    And you still wonder why EU drivers don’t want to come to Britain? How about this from Tomasz’s article? “The infrastructure for truckers in Europe is much more superior to what is on offer on the British roads. Big, spacious motorway service areas with many facilities, small motorway parking with easily available toilets, cheap roadside restaurants offering good food, truck stops with part shops, supermarkets and laundrettes or even open-air gyms dedicated to truckers make their lives much easier […] meanwhile, a typical British truck stop is some dusty yard full of potholes on the side of some industrial estate with a portaloo and a ‘greasy spoon’ burger van parked next to it…”
  16. Long and strange working hours
    Not a lot of driving for most, but definitely a lot of hours.
  17. A lot of physical work is involved
    As job ads will show, driving is only a small part of the job, with lots of physical work involved in loading and unloading.
  18. Vehicles are not fun to drive
    Poor vehicles make for uncomfortable driving.
  19. The UK not providing driver testing for over a year under the the pretext of Covid
    Drivers are not seen as a key service and truck driving tests have been delayed, adding to the shortages
  20. Fear about the future
    How secure a career option is trucking given the way technology is accelerating? Self-drive trucks anyone?

In addition to Tomasz’ enlightening article, many outlets have run pieces about truckers’ lives.

Meanwhile, several newspapers have run articles with British-born truckers, who all had a lot to say, such as Barry Davies

…And the Welsh First Minister has no doubts about where the blame lies: Brexit.

…Check out a day in the life of a female trucker.