Industry has hit back after prime minister Boris Johnson played down the shortages crisis in the UK and said logistics firms should not rely on low wages.
Logistics UK said the driver shortage was caused by 19,000 HGV drivers leaving the UK as a result of Brexit and Covid and the halting of driving tests during the pandemic, and it accused Johnson of “trying to shift the blame”.
Johnson told BBC R4: “We have a low-wage low-cost approach where business does not invest in skills, does not invest in capitol or facilities. Look at the road haulage industry that we’re talking about. The fact is they haven’t been putting money into truck stops, into conditions, into pay, so there’s no supply of young people in this country who frankly are thinking of becoming truck drivers.”
David Wells, chief executive of Logistics UK, said: “To suggest that the current issues being experienced in the supply chain are the fault of the very industry which has kept the country supplied with everything it needs throughout the pandemic is, quite frankly, wrong.
“Rather than trying to shift the blame for the current situation onto industry, we need government to redouble its efforts to provide assistance in those areas it can control.”
Responding to comments Johnson made in which he said “uncontrolled imigration” was not the answer to the UK’s supply chain problems, Wells said industry calls for visas for international workers to fill labour gaps were “not uncontrolled immigration [but] a pragmatic solution to the current economic needs”.
Meanwhile, Next chief executive Lord Simon Wolfson, responding to Johnson's comments that shortages were a “period of adjustment”, said: “Whitehall must be under no illusion: labour shortages are a real problem.”
In a column for the Evening Standard he suggested businesses should be allowed to sponsor as many work visas as they need, but overseas workers should receive the same pay as UK colleagues to avoid driving down UK wages, and businesses should pay a percentage of international workers’ wages as a visa tax to the government.
He said this would “remove the worry of depressing UK wages”.
He continued: “The dearth of HGV drivers is just a very visible example of a chronic problem affecting thousands of restaurants, care homes, small businesses, hospitals, fruit farms, warehouses and more, along with all manner of seasonal work.”
He said businesses were trying to recruit UK workers, as urged by the government, but he warned: “The problem is that employees are simply not available in sufficient numbers.”
Referencing how wages have increased in a bid to attract workers, Wolfson argued “cash alone cannot conjure up more people”, and said rising wages could risk a “Seventies-style inflationary spiral”.
Next recently announced inventories for the half of the year to July 2021 were down 12% on 2019, while average selling price inflation was running at 2%. Wolfson said warehouse wages had gone up by almost 60% in the last 10 years.
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