The government has announced a series of measures to tackle ongoing shortages of heavy goods vehicle (HGV) drivers and poultry workers in the UK. This includes relaxing immigration rules to offer over 10,000 temporary visas in the run up to Christmas.
Brexit, the Coronavirus pandemic, tax changes and additional factors such as an ageing workforce have all contributed to a shortage of food processing workers and HGV drivers in the United Kingdom. These factors have created a ‘perfect storm’ and, as a result, panic buying has ensued across the country leading to extensive queues at petrol stations and empty shelves at supermarkets.
Shortages are the consequence of several key issues, including:
- Brexit – after the UK’s departure from the Single Market, EU citizens (who have previously not resided in the UK) no longer have the right to live and work in the UK without possessing a valid visa. As such, increased uncertainty surrounding customs and border checks forced many European workers to leave the country. For industries that have historically relied upon recruiting across Europe, this is creating huge difficulties.
- Coronavirus – the pandemic forced thousands of workers to permanently return to their home countries, leaving a void in the UK labour market. Lockdown also created a backlog in HGV driving tests which has stifled recruitment in the sector.
- IR35 – in April 2021, changes were made to the off-payroll working rules. This caused many individuals to move from ‘self-employed’ to ‘employed’ status and has resulted in earnings reducing by up to 25%. The changes have exacerbated shortages as some workers have left their original industries in pursuit of an alternative career.
- An ageing workforce – the Road Haulage Association (the RHA) has reported that the average age of HGV drivers in the UK is 55 and less than 1% of drivers are below the age of 25. With a high percentage of employees reaching retirement age, there is an absence of younger recruits with the right skillset to plug the gap.
In a bid to prevent disruption to supply chains in the lead up to Christmas, the government has made a significant U-turn in relation to its stance on UK immigration rules. It has announced that rules will be temporarily relaxed for up to 5,500 poultry workers and 5,000 haulage drivers. Other measures include training over 4,000 individuals as new HGV drivers, writing to retired drivers to try and persuade them back into the industry and deploying Ministry of Defence driving examiners to increase testing capacity.
The Government has stated that visa applications will be processed by UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI) in a ‘timely manner’ and will be delivered through the existing Temporary Worker route. They are to be valid from early October to 24 December 2021 and, although the temporary visas are likely targeted at European workers, eligibility is not limited to EU citizens. Whilst formal guidance is yet to be released, it is thought that the measures will operate in a similar fashion to the Temporary Worker: Seasonal Worker route, under which individuals can enter the UK to carry out farm work for six months.
Whilst the measures are welcome news, with a current shortfall of 90,000 drivers, it remains to be seen whether the Government’s plans go far enough. The reception has been somewhat sceptical with the British Chambers of Commerce commenting that the measures are like ‘throwing a thimble of water on a bonfire’ and the RHA stating that they ‘barely scratch the surface’ of the underlying issue. As such employers must explore alternative options if individuals have previously resided in the UK before Brexit such as Frontier Worker permits for EU nationals or late applications to the EUSS. A subject which we will cover in our next webinar. For many individuals, 3 months for the current proposed route may be too limited to tempt them to move countries and, even if these changes do attract additional workers in the short-term, they are unlikely to wholly alleviate pressure on supply chains.
This introduces bigger questions in relation to the UK’s current immigration system and whether a new permanent route is required for sectors suffering from skills shortages. Easing immigration rules for poultry workers and HGV drivers may also trigger a broader debate given that shortages are not exclusive to these sectors. By implementing these emergency measures, the Government may find that they receive an influx of requests for concessions to be made to UK immigration rules. Rejecting these requests will be harder to justify now that a precedent has been set.
However, the Government are intent that visa routes, whether temporary or permanent, are not the long-term solution and, instead, have expressed that the UK workforce must become self-sufficient rather than relying on foreign labour. If this is the case, then an overhaul of suffering sectors is necessary and could include:
- encouraging affected industries to make roles more appealing to domestic workers by offering wage increases or additional training and benefits;
- providing tax incentives for individuals entering certain posts;
- improving working conditions and facilities so that existing staff are retained and new recruits are not dissuaded from applying due to concerns about employee welfare;
- attracting a younger and more diverse workforce by promoting routes to entry, such as apprenticeships, and ensuring that these remain accessible; and
- investing in recruitment and introducing affordable or subsidised skills programmes so that training costs do not act as a deterrent to particular roles.
Developing resilience to worker shortages will take both time and financial investment. Unless the Government is committed to making real changes to the UK’s economic infrastructure then we may see continued pressure to relax immigration rules in the face of worker shortages.