The folly of Brexit laid bare
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OPINION: The post-Brexit shortage of truck drivers has led to chaos throughout supply chains in everything from food to fuel, which will probably lead to price increases, writes Shannon Ebrahim.
All those Britons who thought Brexit was the way to go, are eating humble pie.
Brexit has made it particularly difficult for the UK to hire workers from the EU, and now the country finds itself in dire straits with a labour shortage in sectors across the country from the trucking industry to care homes, the National Health System, agriculture, food processing, fast food, construction, and hospitality. There is no one in the UK who has not been affected by the shortage of workers.
The post-Brexit shortage of truck drivers has led to chaos throughout supply chains in everything from food to fuel, which will probably lead to price increases.
Those who trumpeted the benefits of Brexit probably never imagined that the result would be supermarkets shelves running out of certain goods, and restaurants having to cut items from their menus.
But even more devastating this week has been nationwide panic buying due to the shortage of truck drivers, resulting in up to 90% of petrol stations running out of fuel, and many being forced to close. This will certainly have devastating effects on the UK’s economy, at least in the short term.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s rhetoric that the government needed to overhaul the immigration system to end the over-reliance on cheap, low-skilled, foreign labour has rung hollow.
The notion of hiring and training the domestic workforce, improving their pay and working conditions, while encouraging employers to invest in technology and automation may have sounded good in theory but, given the UK’s heavy dependence on foreign workers, the plan was unrealistic.
The business sector had been warning for months about the serious consequences for the economy of labour shortages, and the trucking industry was consistently warning that the logistics industry was stretched to breaking point.
The UK is short of 100 000 truck drivers, and there was no backup plan to train and recruit local workers in a timely manner to make up the shortfall. The road haulage industry had always warned that it would take years to train enough drivers, and there are simply not enough British workers to fill the gaps.
The government’s emergency backup plan if the crisis were to escalate across the country, was to mobilise soldiers to drive fuel-laden trucks to petrol stations in the interim. The contingency plan to ensure that fuel continues to flow despite a supply shortage was originally conceived by the Ministry of Defence, as part of planning in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
The plan had supposedly made provision for hundreds of military personnel to be making fuel deliveries by driving a reserve fleet of 80 tankers. But now that implementation of such a plan is urgent, it is clear that it could take weeks to mobilise the requisite number of soldiers. What was also not factored into the planning was the fact that driving fuel tankers would require specialised training and safety qualifications, no matter who was brought in.
It is sad to say, but the chickens are coming home to roost.
Eastern European workers had been welcomed to the UK when the former communist states had joined the EU in 2004, and Britons subsequently benefited from the plethora of cheap labour. But the prolonged Brexit campaign had undertones of xenophobia and advocated the notion of “pulling up the drawbridges,” as conservative politicians promised that Britain would regain control of its borders.
Now the country will have to live with the consequences of those choices, and other European leaders are all but saying “we told you so”.
The Vice-Chancellor of Germany Olaf Scholz was quick to point out the obvious – that the truck driver shortage in Britain is due to Brexit. France’s European Affairs Minister Clement Beaune went further, saying that the petrol station problems Britain is facing reflected the “intellectual fraud” that was Brexit.
The question will be whether Britain will be able to entice Eastern European workers, particularly truck drivers, to fill the labour gap created by Brexit.
In the meantime, agricultural producers are feeling the financial pain as they are short of pickers and processors, and are ending up throwing away a fortune of produce. Thanet Earth, the largest greenhouse complex in Britain, has had to throw away tomatoes worth about R6 million because there was nobody to pick them.
A member of parliament from that area was quoted as saying: “It’s all very well for the home secretary to say: ’Domestic labour should do the job’, but domestic labour isn’t doing the job.”
The complaint is a constant refrain across the country. Turkey growers say they relied on foreigners to pluck and pack their turkeys, but those workers are no longer allowed in. Turkey growers have also had to throw away produce as there are not enough workers to process it.
It is anyone’s guess whether the government will manage to sort out the labour crisis before Christmas, otherwise Britons may find they will have to do without their traditional Christmas turkey.
* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media Group Foreign Editor.