Brexit means British workers can now demand proper market rates for the vital jobs they do and decent bosses will have to pay – as shroud-waving employers campaign for the return of cut-price EU labour
The Germans could scarcely conceal their delight. According to Olaf Scholz, the socialist poised to succeed Angela Merkel as Chancellor of Germany, we can blame the shortage of lorry drivers, our half-empty supermarkets and closed petrol stations squarely at the feet of Brexit.
Some might describe this as ‘schadenfreude’ – taking pleasure in the misfortune of others. It is, of course, a German word.
But Herr Scholz’s assessment is shared by a troubling number of people in Britain. People who should know better.
Wherever we look, captains of industry are demanding we reopen our gates to the cheap foreign labour that has done so much damage to our self-reliance.
In this, the bosses have been aided by a Labour Party that instead of seizing the chance to get better pay for home-grown workers, is turning its back on them and demanding the return of the EU’s free movement of people. Never mind the ruinous long-term consequences.
According to Olaf Scholz (pictured), the socialist poised to succeed Angela Merkel as Chancellor of Germany, we can blame the shortage of lorry drivers, our half-empty supermarkets and closed petrol stations squarely at the feet of Brexit
Part of the government’s reserve tanker fleet based at a depot in Fenstanton, Cambridgeshire. Military drivers will be deployed to deliver fuel to forecourts from Monday as the crisis at the pumps continues
Chief among the apologists for a low-wage economy is Rod McKenzie, the BBC executive turned managing director of the trucking industry’s trade body, the Road Haulage Association.
Brexit, he says, made British-based Continental lorry drivers feel insecure in their jobs and made them think: ‘Maybe Britain’s not for us.’ So they went.
Seventy per cent of the RHA’s members wanted to leave the EU, yet McKenzie’s association lobbied for the softest of soft Brexits with maximum rights for Polish and Bulgarian drivers to undercut our own.
Not that McKenzie’s is a solitary voice. The Remain lobby is both angry and influential, even now. The fuel crisis is an all-too-useful shroud – and they are waving it with vigour.
They always said that little old Britain simply couldn’t hack it alone in the bleak post-Brexit world, that an exodus of truckers and fruit-pickers would bring us to our knees, and so it has come to pass.
This is grotesquely untrue, of course. Yes, we are about 75,000 lorry drivers short. But the countries of the EU are also short of about 400,000 drivers, which will not be filled by Herr Scholz’s beloved freedom of movement: one lorry driver relocating to Hamburg means one less staying in Warsaw.
Germany needs another 60,000 drivers of heavy goods vehicles while Poland’s shortfall is a whopping 120,000.
Indeed, if we look at the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics, a different picture emerges. Because while we have lost 12,700 EU truckers from our roads, the real damage has been done by the loss of about 55,000 British HGV drivers since the first quarter of 2020.
This is grotesquely untrue, of course. Yes, we are about 75,000 lorry drivers short. But the countries of the EU are also short of about 400,000 drivers, which will not be filled by Herr Scholz’s beloved freedom of movement: one lorry driver relocating to Hamburg means one less staying in Warsaw. Pictured: Freight lorries queue at the port of Dover in December 2020
And why don’t British truckers want to drive on British roads?
The answers are sadly obvious: scandalously low, irregular pay; long periods away from families; oppressive, EU-inspired bureaucracy; restrictive and unpleasant shift patterns; being expected to bunk down in the cab rather than having access to decent overnight stops; the disgraceful lack of respect.
All the consequences, in other words, of a cut-price, dog-eat-dog haulage industry that has been allowed to mistreat British workers in this way thanks to the flood of drivers from lower-wage EU economies. Is it any wonder there are now more than 230,000 fully qualified holders of HGV licences who are no longer working in the haulage industry?
And that’s just the ones aged under 45. If only a third of them were to decide to return, the UK shortfall would disappear.
Yet for a substantial part of the British economic and political establishment, Brexit remains unacceptable. For them, it is an unsettling manifestation of popular political will, one that prevailed against all the threats, all the blandishments and all the odds.
It is more than five years now since the majority of the electorate decided – by a huge numerical majority – that it wanted to leave the EU. But the establishment still doesn’t get it. Take Labour leader Keir Starmer. He is every inch a figure of the detached metropolitan elite, appalled and embarrassed by the perversity of voters in deciding they wanted to leave.
In 2016, vast swathes of what were then Labour heartlands decided they wanted out. In 2019 they went still further and ejected dozens of Labour MPs in the party’s supposedly safe Red Wall constituencies in the North.
Few doubt they were impelled to do so by Boris Johnson’s pledge to ‘get Brexit done’. Yet at last week’s Labour conference, Sir Keir solemnly assured his fractious party that he would ‘make Brexit work’, as if Brexit was something that had been forcibly imposed on a reluctant country.
And what exactly does he mean? Most of us would reasonably conclude that Sir Keir’s plan for the future involves a diluted form of EU membership, restoring the freedom of movement vaunted by Herr Scholz – and the return of tens of thousands of cut-price EU workers. He clearly hasn’t noticed the rebalancing going on in the haulage industry.
Yet at last week’s Labour conference, Sir Keir solemnly assured his fractious party that he would ‘make Brexit work’, as if Brexit was something that had been forcibly imposed on a reluctant country
Wages for HGV drivers are increasing, in many cases substantially. British drivers can now demand higher pay, and employers, though sometimes grudgingly, are agreeing to it. It’s the old law of supply and demand.
If that law continues to operate as it has done for many centuries, we will see a good number of the missing 230,000 HGV licence holders returning to the industry.
The same will eventually apply right across the economy, particularly in those vital trades that – thanks largely to the self-indulgence of a comfortable elite – we have come to disregard as suitable only for lowly immigrants. For them, Brexit will be working very well indeed, without any need for Sir Keir to trouble himself.
And so it will for hundreds of thousands of British workers in many other sectors of our economy that have had a disproportionate reliance on Continental labour: butchers, fruit pickers, nurses, chefs, slaughtermen.
This won’t happen overnight, of course. And some short-term disruption of the kind we have been witnessing over the past few weeks is inevitable.
It was always foreseen that the termination of a relationship that prevailed for almost half a century would generate a certain amount of turbulence.
But one thing is certain: British workers can now demand a proper market rate for the important jobs they do, as well as acceptable, modern working conditions.
And British employers will have to pay that rate and provide those conditions. The decent ones will, because Brexit is a revolution, albeit a very British one.
The quiet, patient, ordinary people of this country have spoken.
Sooner or later – and I suspect very soon indeed – Sir Keir, the members of the British establishment and their continental counterparts, including Herr Scholz, will simply have to listen.
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