A truck at Dover, England
All aboard: A truck at Dover, England © Bloomberg

People tend to react with shock when Robert explains that lorry drivers like him often do 12-hour shifts.

“While most people do 9am to 5pm, we can do 4 in the afternoon to 4 in the morning,” says Robert, who asked the FT to change his name, so as not to upset his employer, UK delivery service Yodel.

Longer shifts, which can stretch up to 15 hours, have become far more common since the pandemic struck, according to Robert, as social distancing rules have led to a massive shift towards online shopping.

Brexit has exacerbated the situation, with the Road Haulage Association estimating that about 20,000 drivers have left the UK for their home countries in recent months.

But while Brexit and Covid-19 have contributed to the labour market squeeze — which recently led the UK government to call in the military to help deliver petrol — stagnant pay and poor work conditions have also dissuaded young people from choosing one of society’s essential occupations.

“Go into a school with 16 year-olds today and offer them a job driving a lorry for 12 hours a day — they are going to run for the hills,” Robert says.

Delivery companies in the UK have scrambled to secure supply chains by offering higher pay. In October, Yodel agreed to raise some drivers’ pay by almost 20 per cent after they threatened strike action, which could have affected deliveries to supermarkets such as Marks and Spencer and Aldi.

Paul Day, the managing director of trucking company Turners Soham, which operates 2,300 lorries, estimates that wages for UK drivers have jumped by up to a fifth this year. “Haulage companies have to react to retain their workforce . . . and somebody will have to absorb that cost,” he says, adding that consumers should expect higher prices.

“It is impossible to sustain current consumer expectations,” Day adds.

Yodel chief executive Mike Hancox agrees that the “incredible” growth of ecommerce during the pandemic has forced many to adapt their business models. He does not, however, expect further pressure on work conditions. Although Yodel would always need to adapt to market conditions, Hancox does not see “any drastic changes needed to respond to the acute challenges of the current labour market”.

British citizens have been slow to fill the roles of the many eastern Europeans who worked as lorry drivers and warehouse packers but headed home following Brexit. “A lot of this work has been at minimum wage or low wages and there is some reluctance among British people to fill these jobs at what markets have historically paid,” Day says.

The squeeze on labour reserves to supply chains extends beyond the UK’s borders. Tommy Wreeth, president of the Swedish Transport Workers’ Union, says the industry has long spoken of “divorce schedules” — the evening and weekend shifts that make it nearly impossible for drivers to spend time with friends and family.

While he acknowledges that societies will always need goods transported at inconvenient hours, Wreeth argues that the boom in ecommerce has brought about an unsustainable shift to shorter and faster retail supply chains, where smaller numbers of goods are moved more frequently.

“I think the only way is to go back to the time where we would have to wait a couple of days for something we ordered to be delivered,” he says, adding that many consumers have become oblivious to the work required to maintain smoothly running supply chains.

“Many people who shop online think they are doing something good for the environment, because they don’t see the trucks that are delivering five pairs of shoes and then returning four to the warehouse,” Wreeth adds.

The shortage of drivers comes amid a rush for automation. Companies are already developing driverless trucks, such as California-based company TuSimple, which is preparing to test its vehicles this year on public roads without a human in the cabin. But the idea of autonomous trucks weighing dozens of tonnes rumbling down roads without a qualified driver in the cabin is still distant, and certainly too far away to alleviate the current crisis.

“People don’t understand and see what manual labourers do — we are all looking at the tech, but forget that we will always have some kind of manual handling,” says Robert.

Andy Prendergast, national secretary at UK trade union GMB, says labour shortages are likely to loom over British supply chains for “a couple of years, assuming that wages increase and more people come into the industry”.

Paying more to get goods transported to us will be essential, he says, to supply supermarkets and people with food. “We have to recognise that we have tried to do this on the cheap and we will have to have either higher consumer prices or lower company profits.”

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