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Wednesday 29 November 2023 Dublin: 2°C
The Good Info Project

What can we learn about how Britain has treated migrant workers post-Brexit?

The first shockwaves of Brexit are beginning to emerge following the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic.

THE SHORTAGE OF truck drivers in the UK was caused by a confluence of issues, with additional bureaucracy and a hostility to non-British workers caused by Brexit at its core. 

The British government had chosen to pursue the policy of limiting migration to satisfy those who voted for Brexit – sometimes above other policy issues, such as safeguarding financial services jobs in London or making travelling to Europe easier.

This is despite polling that indicates control of laws and regulations was the most important aspect for Leave voters, with striking new trade deals the second greatest priority. These were prioritised above immigration by 67% to 33% and 59% to 41% respectively. 

The shortage of drivers has been one of the most visible impacts of Brexit, affecting supply ahead of the busiest shopping period of the year. It has also shone a light on how Briain has treated migrant workers since the 2016 vote. 

Professor Federico Fabbrini, Director of the DCU Brexit Institute, says that the Covid-19 pandemic hid some of the effects of the UK withdrawal from the EU. “But as we move out of the health emergency, the real costs of leaving the EU are starting to emerge in a way which is easy for all to see,” he told The Journal. 

He says that organisations have been warning of the exodus of EU citizens from the UK workforce across sectors such as agriculture, hospitality, healthcare and higher education.

I think what we are witnessing at the moment is that reality at some point will impose itself. The impact of the end of free movement had largely been anticipated by experts, but the ideological project of Brext had rejected this view.

Membership of the EU brings with it the benefit of the so-called ‘four freedoms’: freedom of movement of goods, people, services and capital.

In order to limit the movement of people and curb migration, as was pledged by some politicians ahead of the 2016 EU referendum vote, the movement of the other three were also greatly limited – in the form of additional costs, checks, paperwork or complete bans.

EU truck drivers are now asked for additional documentation when travelling to the UK, for both outward and inward travel. Whereas before EU drivers delivering goods to the UK could carry out up to three internal deliveries while there for up to seven days under ‘cabotage’ rules, post-Brexit this has been limited to two deliveries within three days. 

This has made the UK less attractive to migrant workers; the UK government’s offer of a three-month visa to EU HGV drivers is not attractive enough to uproot people.

“It’s just insolence to think that migrants are like a tap which you can open and close when needed,” Glasgow-based HGV driver Tomasz Orynski told the BBC.

Tweet by @Led By Donkeys Led By Donkeys / Twitter Led By Donkeys / Twitter / Twitter

When a British reporter asked Olaf Scholz, who could succeed Angela Merkel as Chancellor, whether Germany would help alleviate the UK’s driver shortage, laughter ensued, before Scholz said that this was Brexit in operation.

“The free movement of labour is part of the European Union,” he said.

“We worked very hard to convince the British not to leave the union. They decided [differently] and I hope they will manage the problems coming from that.”

Netherlands-based trade unionist Edwin Atema put it in much stronger terms on BBC Radio 4 last week: “The EU workers we speak to will not go to the UK for a short-term visa to help the UK out of the shit they created themselves.”

Independent TD Verona Murphy, who is the former president of the Irish Road Haulage Association, told The Journal that while “mistruths” were shared during the Brexit referendum campaign, “I don’t think anyone thought about this”.

“Whether it was a reality or a prospect, they didn’t care. It was politics versus reality. 

From Boris Johnson’s perspective, we were being dramatic, and it was all going to be fine. You can print money, but you can’t print drivers.

Back in Great Britain, the views are not any more sympathetic. First Minister of Wales Mark Drakeford told his parliament that the British Government’s offer of a three-month visa was “exploitative”:

“It’s hard to imagine a government that has made a more derisory attempt to solve a problem of their own creation. Of course we are short of HGV drivers, because your government took us out of the European Union where we were previously supplied [with] drivers.

“The idea that people are going to be willing to uproot themselves and come back and work in this country for a matter of weeks, only to be told by the UK government that they will be discarded again on Christmas Eve when they no longer have any use for them… The arrogance of it is breathtaking, but it simply isn’t going to work.”

Points-based immigration

In February last year, off the back of the Brexit trade deal agreed before Christmas, the UK Home Secretary Priti Patel announced the UK’s post-Brexit “points-based” immigration system, which would determine who could live and work in the UK.

The changes were designed to cut the number of low-skilled migrants entering Britain, and to make it easier for higher-skilled workers to get UK visas. Representatives of many industries - including the care sector, farmers, bakers, food processors, and the Confederation of British Industry – warned that this could bring about huge changes.

Apart from Irish citizens, who are exempt, anyone outside of the UK who wanted to work in the UK would need to request permission in advance, and earn a number of points.

To work in the UK, you’d need 70 points: the three ‘mandatory’ skills you need are: a job offer by an “approved sponsor”, which isworth 20 points; the job offer being at a required skill level (A-Level or its equivalent), worth 20 points; and to speak English, worth 10 points.

A job in a “shortage occupation”, as designated by the Migration Advisory Committee, is worth 20 points.

This more hostile system, coupled with pandemic-prompted lockdowns that limited economic activity, has made the UK a less attractive place for migrants to want to work.

It could get worse

In addition to the shortage of truck drivers, there are problems brewing in other sectors.

The chief executive officer of Next warned of supply-chain problems in the run-up to Christmas if the UK doesn’t relax some post-Brexit immigration rules and allow more migrant workers into the country. 

There is also some suggestion that the UK may be short of bankers, according to a joint report from lobby group TheCityUK, EY, and the City of London Corporation, due to it being harder and more expensive post-Brexit to hire staff from abroad.

Representatives of the pig industry have also warned there could be a shortage of butchers which could impact food supplies over Christmas.

What lesson can be learned

Verona Murphy says the solution to the driver shortage is to offer better pay and work conditions than other countries in order to have a “competitive edge”, and to open road haulage work permits and visas to more migrant workers outside of the EU. 

“America is short of drivers too, and if we don’t do something soon, we will fall behind.”

Murphy also says that the EU’s Mobility Package, which she calls the ‘CAP of road haulage’, has requirements that drivers need to adhere to that could be improved.

The head of Oxfam’s EU Office, Evelien van Roemburg said that the problems the UK is now facing will hopefully be a “wake-up call” for EU member states on migration.

“You see in a lot of member states that migrants are being scapegoated for many other domestic issues. 

“In the Netherlands, there was a discussion in Parliament about the new financial year and the budget of the government, and the far-right party, which is pretty big in the Netherlands, had calculated how much migrants are contributing to emissions. So they found a way to blame the climate crisis on migrants, which is completely ridiculous but it’s a way to not talk about the actual issues – to not talk about what [politicians have] done, or what has the government done, to address all these other issues. 

“It’s a way to avoid responsibility. And that’s something that needs to be dealt with.”

“For that, you need courageous politicians and leaders, looking at themselves and acknowledging what they contributed to [the problem] themselves and how they can change that instead of saying ‘It’s the fault of the Polish migrants that we don’t have sufficient housing’. It’s a housing problem, it’s not a migrant problem. So I do hope that the examples and the experience in the UK is some kind of wake-up call.”

Professor Fabbrini said that the issue faced by the UK was “predictable”, and had been predicted by experts ahead of a deal being struck.

“The Brexit vote was largely about curbing migration, so the UK made the choice to bring an end to free movement. And the problems now are becoming obvious for all to see.”

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