The petrol supply crisis: no national solution

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Long queues snaking into petrol stations, drivers fighting with each other, the government dumping the responsibility on others and Europe taunting the UK with schadenfreude. But the closure or drying out of a large number of petrol stations is only the most glaring tip of the iceberg. For supply is faltering in several sectors. With restaurants closing as they cannot be supplied, with shelves in supermarkets remaining half-empty, with abattoirs that cannot process meat because of shortages of carbon dioxide[1], large parts of the country have been paralysed.

The government blames the pandemic, as testing for thousands of new HGV drivers had to be suspended over the past year and a half. But it also points to the haulage industry, which does not offer sufficiently attractive working conditions. The Labour Party blames the fuel chaos on Boris Johnson’s failure to prepare for the consequences of Brexit. “The Government has reduced the country to chaos as we track from crisis to crisis.” But what is the truth and how far is all this an inbuilt manifestation of the capitalist mode of production?

The mass desertion of lorry drivers

If there is a general agreement that the failures in supply[2] are caused by the lack of lorry drivers, this shortage is not a new phenomenon and not limited to the UK[3]. The numbers of British drivers qualified to drive HGVs have been in decline in the UK for at least five years. Many of those who passed their test choose not to drive commercial HGV vehicles or left the job within a couple of years[4]. So, in the heady days before Covid or Brexit, the UK was already lacking around 75,000 drivers.

On the whole the present shortages on the British labour market, in particular in the food and hospitality industries, are mainly due to Brexit [5]. For the sake of simplicity, the mainstream media attribute the present shortage of lorry drivers to the Covid pandemic and an exodus of foreign workers following Britain's definitive exit from the EU. But the shortage in the haulage industry was already significant before Covid or Brexit, so it can’t be blamed only on the virus or on the return of drivers to the Continent.

Even if the figures do not all tell exactly the same story, it is certain that since the start of the pandemic about 15,000 new candidates for the haulage industry have not been able to do the HGV driver test (and not 40,000 as Transport Secretary Grant Shapps tried to make us believe). It is also certain that between 15,000 and 20,000 European truckers have not returned to the UK up till now. But the main bulk of the shortages are due to the huge amount of (mostly elderly) drivers who retired from this work between spring 2020 and September 2021: in total nearly 50,000.

This has more or less been confirmed by the Road Haulage Association (RHA), which stated that the shortage of lorry drivers is also due to the retirement of drivers and low wages. Its statement is closer to the truth than the explanations about Brexit and the pandemic, because the sector is well-known for its harsh working conditions and relatively low salaries. Mark Seddon, former media adviser to the President of the United Nations General Assembly, expressed it bluntly: the haulage industry is characterised by “endemic low salaries, long hours, and bad working conditions”.

The profession of lorry driver in the UK is very demanding and pressurised: drivers are responsible for the roadworthiness of the vehicle, its cleanliness, for understanding the ever-changing tachograph laws, weight limits, emission restrictions, for loading and unloading the cargo, for securing the cargo safely. Moreover, they have to put up with the very worst of living conditions. With Britain among Europe’s worst countries for traffic jams, the working hours are very long, while conditions can be rough: living away and sleeping in your lorry, eating in lay-bys, bad food, no place to exercise. The stress, strain and long working hours are rewarded with low wages

Didn’t workers protest against these pitiful working conditions? Hardly. In August there was a wavering strike by several hundred lorry drivers and in September one by Argos truck drivers in Rochdale. But the last national lorry drivers’ strike took place on January 1979, during the “Winter of Discontent”. This fact is already revealing about the state of the haulage sector: instead of organising strikes, drivers have mainly gone for individual “solutions” and are deserting the haulage industry in massive quantities. [6]

Crisis management

In June of this year the Road Haulage Association wrote to Boris Johnson, warning that the country was around 100,000 drivers short. On 20 July 2021 the government announced a package of measures to help tackle the HGV driver shortage, which was immediately criticised by the sector as it would only bear fruit in a year's time. Since then nothing happened until the shortage showed itself in broad daylight in September. While the government loudly denies that the haulage sector is in crisis, the proposed solutions have all the characteristics of a short-term and chaotic approach:

  • After the UK had fought for years to close borders to foreigners and finally chose Brexit, it is now compelled to offer temporary visas to 5,000 or even 10,000 foreign fuel tanker and food lorry drivers.
  • The Ministry of Defence has prepared 150 qualified military drivers to deliver fuel - and has another 150 personnel ready to support them, which is nothing more than a poor publicity stunt.
  • Former HGV drivers are encouraged to return to the profession in a rather desperate-looking letter, signed by Baroness Vere of Norbiton, the Minister for Roads, Buses and Places, together with two representatives of the logistic and haulage sector.
  • Ministers called on 40,000 retired HGV licence holders to return to work to help refill petrol stations and deliver supplies to supermarkets. This is unlikely to get many positive responses.

The anarchy of capitalist production

In the international arena the UK can only compete by the super-exploitation of at least a million low-paid foreign workers. But since these are no longer available it is not only facing a shortage of nearly 100,000 lorry drivers but also 500,000 unfilled vacancies in the agricultural and food industry. At the same time 2.5 million workers in the UK are unemployed, and millions more underemployed, struggling on part-time wages. This is the anarchy of capitalist production, which inevitably leads to disharmony and fractures between the different sectors of the economy.

The solution proposed by the various leftist organisations, “as empty shelves make headlines in the UK”, is unchanged: “a democratically planned economy” on the national level.  (Global supply chain chaos & the need for a rationally planned economy, The Socialist Party, section in Ireland of the ISA)

But this fairy tale of the national planned economy brings no solution to the anarchy of the market. Planning by the national state or under “democratic” control of the workers organised in unions, does not eliminate private capitalist appropriation and competition since this is itself co-determined by the world market, and by the changing requirements of imperialist competition. This kind of state capitalism only brings mutual competition onto a higher level: instead of the competition between various private companies and sectors comes the trade war between imperialist states. We know only too well what such an economic war leads to…


Dennis, 9.10.21

[1] This lack of CO2 is not caused by the shortage of lorry drivers alone. The two main plants of CF Industries, which produce CO2 as a by-product of their fertilisers, have stopped work because of rises in wholesale gas prices.

[2] UK inventories are currently 54 per cent full, which is already down from 62 per cent last year and still more from 71 per cent in 2019.

[3] Six of the biggest economies in the world are also experiencing a massive labour shortage. In Germany for instance there is a shortage of 60,000 to 80,000 road haulage workers. (The Guardian, How the supply chain crisis is affecting six big economies)

[4] Richard Simpson, former editor of Trucking magazine, explained that: “There are (…) about 600,000 people holding LGV cat C (rigid truck) or cat C+E (articulated lorry) licences in the UK who do not currently drive trucks for a living.” (Cited in The Guardian, HGV driver shortage was inevitable)

[5] The total of foreign workers who left the UK with the pandemic and did not return is estimated between 1 and 1,3 million, most of whom worked in the food industry and hospitality.

[6] It has been estimated that 150,000 drivers have left the UK driver pool over the last decade. See: “Understanding and addressing HGV driver shortages in the UK”; Maja Piecyk and Julian Allen, Westminster University, September 30, 2021.