U.K. Trucking Shortage Endures Despite Plea for Foreign Drivers

In the weeks since the British government announced that it would offer 5,000 temporary visas to truck drivers from continental Europe, part of a campaign to reduce supply chain pressure in the run-up to Christmas, Lukasz Skopinski, a Polish trucker now working in the United Kingdom, has offered this advice to friends back home:

Don’t bother.

“I talk to them on WhatsApp while I drive, and when this topic comes up I tell them that moving here just isn’t worth it,” he said in a recent interview. “They’re better off with a contract in Germany. The money is about the same, and they will be a lot closer to home.”

So rather than a source of instant relief, the visa offer has become an informal measure of the appeal of post-Brexit, late-pandemic Britain to a group that once considered this island one of the most attractive and lucrative places to settle and work.

Interviews with Polish drivers, on both sides of the English Channel, suggest that Britain has lost luster. At the same time, an improving economy in Poland has made relocation far less attractive.

At a highway truck stop about an hour east of Warsaw, in a town called Maliszew, it was easy to find drivers who had heard about the British visas. The challenge was finding anyone eager to get one.

“Financially, it’s OK here,” said Kazimierz Makowski, who was transporting wheat from Poland to Latvia. “I’d earn another 1,000 pounds a month there” — about $1,300 — “but I’d have to pay for an apartment. So it’s not really profitable for me to move.”

“Honestly, I’d rather live in France,” said Miroslaw Kotynia, climbing into his 12-wheeler after a quick lunch.

Hoping to alleviate long lines at gas stations, empty shelves in grocery stores and a Christmas without mince pies, the Department for Transport began to recruit drivers overseas in October. Official figures have not been released, but in mid-October, Oliver Dowden, a co-chairman of the Conservative Party, said on a radio show that a “relatively limited” number of applications had been received and that a little more than 20 had been approved.

Some drivers who have worked in Britain said the country had become more xenophobic since Brexit, which took effect in January 2020. The campaign to leave the European Union was championed loudest by the United Kingdom Independence Party, whose leader, Nigel Farage, pushed for a law that would ensure “British jobs for British workers.” In 2013, he warned of a “Romanian crime wave.”

“We lost a bunch of drivers to England five years ago, even when they knew that Brexit was a possibility,” said Radoslaw Balcewicz, a trucking company consultant in Warsaw. “After Brexit, a lot of them called and said they would never work there again.”

Drivers reported hearing the occasional nativist remark, variations of “You should go back to your country.” More common is the general sense that the atmosphere in Britain has become less hospitable. Even the time limit on the visa offer feels less than welcoming. The clear message, a few drivers said, is “Come here and work until the day before Christmas, and then please leave.”

“When I heard that Boris Johnson had made this offer, I thought, ‘He’s crazy,’” Mr. Balcewicz said. “Imagine a 25-, 26-year-old truck driver in Poland. He can go to Belgium and make just as much money. And the work is easier. He’s closer to his family. He can drive on the correct side of the road. In England, even the steering wheel is in the wrong place.”

The direction of migration, since Brexit and then the pandemic arrived, has been largely in one direction — toward the continent. The number of foreign-born nationals who left Britain as Covid-19 began to rampage around the world is roughly estimated at 1.3 million in a study by the Economic Statistics Center of Excellence. The authors describe this as an “unprecedented exodus.”

Many of those departed workers had come from countries like Poland, Romania and Hungary, members of the European Union with lower wages and standards of living. The restaurant industry is just one of many that have been waylaid by this outflow of people. It’s not unusual now to find signs warning customers to brace themselves for delays. Diners at a Shake Shack in London are greeted by a placard that reads, “Hey Shack Fam, due to current staffing challenges in the U.K. we’re unable to guarantee our full menu offerings, and wait times may be longer than usual.”

The trucking industry has been hit just as hard. The British government estimates that it needs 100,000 more drivers. This raises the question of why the Department for Transport has made a mere 5,000 temporary visas available. In Parliament, politicians from opposition parties contend that the low figure reflects ambivalence in the Conservative government.

“This is a Band-Aid to fix a broken leg,” said Alistair Carmichael, the Liberal Democrats’ spokesman for home affairs and a member of Parliament. “In many ways, the program highlights the way in which this government pulls itself in two directions at once. On the one hand you have traditional Conservative politicians that want to do what’s right by the economy and business and bring in drivers from Europe. On the other you have an ideological right-wing element of the party with an agenda which is much more nationalist and exclusive, regardless of the economic consequences.”

The shortfall of drivers has led some in the trucking industry to predict that the Christmas season will require some unhappy choices.

“If this problem isn’t rectified soon, people in the supply chain will be forced to make a decision: Do we want to ship essentials like food, or luxury items for the holidays?” said Rob Holliman, who oversees 140 trucks as the director of two British trucking companies. “We can have either milk in supermarkets or Christmas presents in stores. There aren’t enough truck drivers to have both.”

The reluctance of Polish truckers to move to Britain is also a story about how life in Poland has improved in the past decade. Fifteen years ago, when Witold Szulc moved to a town near Manchester, his paycheck as a truck driver and his quality of life rose substantially, he said. Since 2010, Poland’s economic growth has been strong enough for FTSE Russell, which licenses stock market indexes, to reclassify the country as a developed market, up from an emerging market.

As Poland’s fortunes rose, Mr. Szulc soured on England. The parking lots and facilities for truckers, he said, are abysmal compared with those in most of Europe. The showers are old and poorly maintained, and the toilets are filthy and stinking, a sentiment echoed by many truckers, foreign and otherwise. More important, he and his wife came to dread the idea of raising their four children in Britain.

“We don’t like the lifestyle of British kids,” Mr. Szulc said. “They’re loud, they behave badly, they don’t seem to respect anybody. And a lot of them don’t like immigrants, like their parents. We imagined our children growing up like that, and we said, ‘No.’”

In 2019, he returned to Poland, and now he and a friend own and run an organic food store in Lodz.

Mr. Skopinski, the driver who chats with friends on WhatsApp, also has plans to move back to Poland early next year. His mother is older, and he’d like to live nearby. Plus, he has made enough money to leave.

“At this point,” he said, “the only thing I like about England is the finances.”

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