7 October 2021
Making it pleasanter.
By Robert Kilconner
At first blush it sounds rather horrible. Eastern Europeans employed to drive lorries on British roads at salaries which are insufficient to attract British drivers but look quite good in the context of pay levels back home; facilities for lorry drivers well below European standards? After all, they are only cheap labour and have no votes. Really they are lucky to be allowed to wash at all.
Yuck, there is a smell of slave labour about it. No wonder that even the market-orientated Tories believe that things must change and are unwilling to open the gates to migrant drivers to perpetuate this traffic. No wonder that they are prepared to face down those who would go back to the status quo, even at the cost of failing fuel supplies, the disruption of important industries and gaps on supermarket shelves. Train up British drivers. Expedite the issue of HGV licences. Jobs for British workers. That is the stuff.
But is it really? The use of cheap workers from abroad has long underpinned important parts of the British economy. In the fruit farms, in the care homes and on the roads, labour from abroad has come cheaper than that available locally and costs have been held down accordingly to the advantage of consumers and of the corporate sector. Is that as it should be, or is it not?
Making use of cheap labour is just one of the ways in which we access international markets to buy things cheaply. Suppose you run a company which needs a particular type of circuit board. You could insist on such boards being produced in the UK or some other prosperous jurisdiction or you could simply look around the market and find the cheapest supplier. Of course you do the second and of course that supplier is often cheap because it or its subcontractors pay workers at far below UK rates. Whether that is a good or a bad thing depends upon the circumstances. The workers who produce the circuit boards could be being exploited in circumstances of near slavery or, on the other hand, their work could be bringing a little prosperity to some out of the way part of the world whose inhabitants would otherwise starve. Some of our more socially aware retailers seek to distinguish between the two but in many circumstances either that is not practicable or price rules all. So cotton goods are made in the sweatshops of the Far East, food is imported from areas where they cannot feed their own starving, and many ugly things besides. It may all be a long way down the supply chain but buying things cheaply often means that someone, somewhere, is getting much less than they would get for corresponding work in the UK.
So much for the tears, but what is the alternative? Britain is a trading nation rather than a global manufacturing hub so sourcing things cheaply is an important part of how we make our living. Besides, selling to the rich is one of the ways in which poor countries improve the lot of their citizens and the role of middleman in this process is not a dishonourable one. Cease to buy from them and you lock them into a cycle of poverty. Switch goods for labour and you have the moral case for bringing cheap labour from abroad.
Perhaps, then, rather than locking the doors against lorry drivers who have no intention of settling here permanently, the Government focus should be on their conditions of work so that their working environment are brought up to standards which we would expect for our own citizens. In particular they might ask why it is that facilities for commercial drivers at service stations are below the standard of those provided in France. Could it be that a franchisee will pay more to the Government if such facilities are minimal? Could it be that facilities have been skimped as a way of increasing revenues? If this could be improved, the driving of lorries could be pleasanter for British and foreign drivers alike. It seems a good place to start.
tile photo: Erik Mclean on Unsplash