Boris Johnson slammed by unions for turning to foreign HGV drivers

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A fuel tanker arrives at a depot in the Midlands
A fuel tanker arrives at a depot in the Midlands

Trade unions have criticised Boris Johnson for leaning on foreign labour to plug holes in the HGV driver shortage, saying it amounts to “going backwards”.

The Prime Minister backtracked on an initial reluctance to issue new visas to HGV drivers based overseas, announcing that 5,000 visas would be approved.

Critics said it backtracked on the Johnson government’s drive after the UK left the European Union to focus on filling job shortages with British workers.

However, Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, criticised the Government for not going far enough, indicating he would back the approval of 100,000 visas for overseas HGV drivers.

Eurosceptics have long argued that Brexit, which ended the “freedom of movement” rights that allowed Europeans to move to the UK, would lead to more job opportunities for Britons.

Cars queue for fuel at a BP petrol station in Bracknell, Berkshire - PA
Cars queue for fuel at a BP petrol station in Bracknell, Berkshire - PA

Senior figures in two leading unions, the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union and Unite, voiced criticism at the Prime Minister’s visa announcement.

Mick Lynch, general secretary of the RMT union, said the Government was "going backwards" by "importing" labour from Europe.

He told a fringe meeting at the Labour Party conference in Brighton that people living in inner city communities across the UK that had been "left behind" should be recruited instead, but on decent pay and conditions.

"Instead, they want to bring people here from all over Europe, on poverty wages and poor terms and conditions," he said.

Adrian Jones, Unite’s national officer for road transport, said "Kicking these issues into the long grass instead of taking decisive steps now will only create worse disruption down the line.

"Paying and treating overseas drivers differently from UK drivers is immoral and unjust and has created the problems we see today. It is discrimination and cannot be allowed to carry on.

"It will take long-term commitments and serious action from employers and government if the haulage industry is to be reformed and made fairer and more resilient."

Bev Clarkson, Unite national officer for food, drink and agriculture, said: "The poverty pay and insecure contracts on offer in poultry processing do not compensate for the physically draining and unpleasant work.

"That needs to change. What must not happen is the re-establishment of an employment system that relies on exploited migrant labour and pits workers against each other."

The Government has held off going further, for now at least, despite estimates that as many as 100,000 HGV drivers are needed.

Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, on Sunday admitted he had not wanted to open the door to foreign workers to tackle vacancies in the HGV sector.

Mr Shapps told the BBC's Andrew Marr Show: "It is unfortunate, and you're right we didn't want - we don't want - to be relying on overseas labour in the longer run, which is why this is limited until Christmas, because we've got to sort out these longer-term problems with our HGV sector, which has been around for years, by the way.

"And I'm afraid the thing that has sparked this particular rush on the petrol stations is some fairly irresponsible briefing from one of the road haulage associations, which seems to have got this going."

Sir Keir suggested he would back creating enough visas to fill all 100,000 vacancies in the haulage industry, telling the same show: "We have to issue enough visas to cover the number of drivers that we need."

Nearly one million letters will also be landing on the doormats of people with HGV licences in the coming days enticing them to return to the job now that wages have risen.

The Government is keen to see better conditions in terms of truck-stop facilities as it bids to shift the workforce demographic from being mostly white, male and in their mid-50s.

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