Empty shelves, missing product lines and the rising sense of a country that may not be able to feed itself: despite still being underplayed by most of the media, the results of Britain’s labour shortages are now ubiquitous.
Fruit growers warn that their crops are simply being left to rot. For want of regular workers, meat-processing plants are set to employ prisoners. The shortage of lorry drivers means that McDonald’s has run out of milkshakes. After 18 months of misery and disruption, most of us seem to be responding with fatalistic shrugs, although the situation also brings to mind a cliched but pointed question: can you imagine the reaction if this was happening under a Labour government?
If you want to understand the starkest realities, a good place to look is the chunk of eastern England that encompasses Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire, where vast vegetable farms sit alongside food-processing businesses, and where such towns as Wisbech, Spalding and Boston have become bywords for migration from central and eastern Europe. I have been there many times, trying to understand an area of the country at the core of how Britain’s economy has been reshaped over the past three decades.
A few days ago I put in a call to Lionel Sheffield, the boss of a labour agency called Rapid Recruitment, based in Wisbech. The last time we met, in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 referendum, he told me the local labour market was heading towards some kind of crisis, but his firm’s books were still full of hundreds of people from EU countries, whom he directed towards work not just in the food industry, but also transport and manufacturing. Now, as Brexit has convinced people to return to their home countries, and new visa rules have ensured they will not be replaced by new migrants, things have passed a tipping point. Employers are “fighting over a dwindling pool of labour”, he says.
The standard line from the Home Office, parroted with a familiar populist zeal, is that “employers should invest in our domestic workforce instead of relying on labour from abroad”. But Sheffield insists that even if wages increase – and in food processing, he says, local hourly rates have recently gone up from the minimum wage of £8.91 to £9.50 – he operates in a part of the country with full employment, where British-born people tend to choose different kinds of work. Pay may well continue to rise, as much as the tight margins imposed by supermarkets will allow. Yet whether that will conjure up new armies of workers seems doubtful.
The result, for the moment, sounds like chaos. One company Sheffield deals with employs people to chop up carrots and onions for supermarket ready meals. But, as it runs low on workers, it faces another problem: insufficient numbers of lorries have been turning up to transport the processed veg to the next stage of production. As a result, even more food has been thrown away.
Which brings us to the kind of work that sits at the core of the crisis. The haulage industry is reckoned to be short of around 100,000 drivers. Some of this is to do with Brexit, but it also reveals deeper, more structural problems evident in many countries. For lorry drivers, median hourly pay stands at £11.80, work is often arduous and massively time-consuming, and the majority of the workforce is over 45. Via such services as Amazon Prime, we have been encouraged to believe that the costs of post and packaging can be waved away, and transport can somehow be organised for free – an insidious idea that has accelerated the downward slide of pay and conditions.
Adrian Jones, the Unite union’s national officer for road transport, says “a lot of chickens have come home to roost”. He is now seeing pay increases for drivers that are three or four times the rate of inflation, and he wants more. A fragmented industry, he says, ought to be compelled to agree a floor on pay and basic standards, as happens in the Netherlands. In the short to medium term, the haulage industry’s problems will be seen in confusion and economic disarray – but the sudden sense of urgency surrounding such proposals shows that fundamental things might already be changing for the better.
For decades, large swathes of the labour market have been run on the assumption that there will always be sufficient people prepared to work for precious little. But here and across the world, as parts of the economy have been shut down and furlough schemes have given people pause for thought, the idea that they need not stay in jobs that are exploitative and morale-sapping has evidently caught on.
In the UK, meanwhile, Brexit remains a disastrous and chaotic project – but, among its endless and unpredictable consequences, leaving the EU has cut off employers’ access to a pool of people who were too often exploitable. Time has thereby been called on one of the ways that our dysfunctional labour market was prevented from imploding.
A sudden flurry of short-term fixes – witness big companies’ offering signing-on bonuses for new recruits – ought to be greeted with derision, but elsewhere there are very interesting signs of change. Unite’s new general secretary is Sharon Graham, who says she is less interested in the union’s relationship with the Labour party than with the urgency of organising in workplaces. Last week her union’s press office suggested I talk to a 30-year-old union activist named David Imre, who came to the UK from Romania six years ago.
Two years ago Imre joined Unite, and he is now an official union convenor at a factory in Wales that processes chicken. The work, he told me, is “cold, hard – not easy”. A big part of the workforce is from Poland, Romania and Bulgaria. A few years ago, there were only 90 or so unionised workers at the factory; now, the figure is closer to 800.
Thanks to Brexit, Imre says, the factory is now “really, really short of people”. Six months ago, after pressure from the union, its basic hourly rate went from £8.93 to £9.50. He says he now wants entry-level pay to rise to at least £10.50. “I’m using this labour shortage to get more money for people,” he said.
Herein lies something that should not be overlooked in these strange, unprecedented times. Amid chaos and uncertainty, things that were not supposed to happen suddenly seem eminently possible.