Military on the streets, enforced prison labour, tens of thousands of animals slaughtered. On the surface, it all sounds like the plot of a dystopian novel, until you realise these are solutions that have been proposed to fight the UK’s increasing labour shortage.
From 2,000 military HGV drivers bring brought in to deal with a shortage of truck drivers to food manufacturers asking for special dispensation to use prison labour, and farms potentially having to cull 70,000 pigs due to a lack of workers, headlines about the increasingly dire impact these shortages are having seem to be everywhere. By June, one estimate suggested there were some fifty articles referencing ‘labour shortages’ in the national media.
Amid the shortages and the outlandish solutions being suggested there has been a revival of the argument that workers are too lazy or reliant on the state to take up these jobs. In many ways that argument has underpinned the government’s public justifications of its upcoming cut to Universal Credit – as Boris Johnson explained it the cut will pressure people to stop relying on Universal Credit and ‘get people into work’. Even if you ignore the fact that those already in work or who can’t work make up well over half of all Universal Credit users, the benefit is far from a replacement for a job already – even with the soon to be cancelled £20 a week uplift, Universal Credit only covers 18 percent of the average UK income.
On a lot of levels it’s worth questioning the very idea there are swathes of people refusing to work. Across the entire economy, the Resolution Foundation has found that job vacancies on average actually take less time to fill now than they did before the pandemic. What the Foundation cited as the problem were ‘sectorally concentrated hiring challenges’ – simply put, some industries have far bigger shortages than others.
The reason many of the worst affected sectors by these shortages are ‘struggling’ has a lot to do with the jobs themselves, rather than the overall state of the economy. Take the sectors that have been calling for most outlandish interventions. Working 12-hour shifts in meat packing plants is common, often in shift patterns that are ‘four on, four off’ – giving you little to no time to rest. They were also huge super-spreader sites for Covid, with one BMJ editorial saying the businesses ‘had failed in their duty to workers and the wider public health’ during the pandemic. One investigation by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism found the overall food and drink packing industry also has a shocking safety record as 18 workers lost fingers, parts of fingers or limbs, and over 100 suffered serious injuries including damage to eyesight, just in the year 2016-17: all this to earn wages around or just above the minimum wage mark.
Or take truck drivers and logistics. The huge shortfall of HGV drivers—estimated at over 100,000 drivers—as well as other delivery and logistics workers has been the culprit of everything from shortages at supermarkets to McDonalds running out of milkshakes. Over recent decades what was once a stable, well-paid job has seen wages drop in relative terms. Median hourly pay for truck drivers rose by 10 percent to £11.80 since 2015 – for the wider economy the median rise was 16 percent. Meanwhile, the work itself is arduous – drivers often work 13- to 15-hour days of what can be a very physically tolling job at times, and often requires drivers to pay thousands of pounds to fund their own qualifications.
It’s the same across the entire delivery and logistics sector. One delivery driver I spoke to described being fired by Amazon Flex because a racist facial recognition algorithm for employees didn’t recognise his face. Even when he was working he was only offered a few hours a week of work for the company, far from enough to live on. And while nominally earning a decent hourly wage, after calculating for unpaid overtime, fees from Amazon for missing targets, costs of fuel, congestion charge and more, he said he earned far below minimum wage. Some shifts it would be less than £10 for hours of work. At Ocado, there is talk of strike action by IWGB trade union after it was revealed that many of their delivery drivers are now earning as little as £5 an hour.
You would think, then, that the easiest solution to the staffing shortages would simply be to pay more to these already overworked, underpaid, and badly treated employees. But that’s far from the case. One survey from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development suggested fewer than 25 percent of firms planned to use better wages to entice the new employees they need. Instead, most employers are focused on short-term fixes. Tesco is offering new HGV drivers signing on bonuses of £1000, but a short-term boost of cash won’t address the structural problems in the sector that have made it so undesirable to work in the first place. Neither will interventions by the military, or special dispensation to hire foreign workers on poverty wages.
While in the past many of these sectors relied on EU workers and were hit hard by Brexit—60 percent of all meat processing workers while 14,000 EU lorry drivers working in Britain left their jobs across 2019-2020—relying on those workers in the first place was only ever plastering over the cracks.
The deeper solutions are not that hard. The fundamental fact is that most people looking for jobs just want to be able to work with security and decent pay and conditions. Fewer and fewer jobs are offering that. An increasingly tight labour market in these sectors offers a chance for us to reshape these industries where increasingly efficiency, lower prices, and higher profit margins are coming at the cost of the workers who keep the system running. First it needs government and employers to recognise the real problems at play.