By Karla Adam,
Matt Dunham AP
LONDON — Hoping to ease a supply-chain crisis and forestall a Christmas logjam, the British government announced late Saturday night that more than 10,000 foreign workers will be eligible for temporary visas to work as truck drivers and in the food industry.
The move is a departure for Boris Johnson’s administration, which, since Britain’s exit from the European Union in January 2020, has overhauled its immigration system to end what it described as an overreliance on cheap, low-skilled foreign labor. It said that it wanted to hire and train the domestic workforce and that employers needed to adjust and invest more in technology and automation.
But in a U-turn this weekend, the government said it would allow temporary visas for truck drivers and poultry workers. It comes as labor shortages in Britain have rippled through the economy, with supermarket shelves running out of some goods and restaurant chains like McDonalds and KFC cutting items from their menus.
On the weekend, the crisis spread to gas stations, resulting in long queues and rationed fuel sales. (The gloomy mood was lifted, at least temporarily, when the BBC sent its reporter Phil McCann to a gas station to cover unfolding events.)
Business groups said the emergency visas were too little, too late. For months, businesses had been warning about labor shortages across the economy — including in nursing homes, agriculture, construction, hospitality — and urging the government to relax its rules for specific sectors to make it easier to recruit E.U. workers.
But the government had resisted the calls, saying that an influx of cheaper foreign labor could reduce companies’ incentives to improve pay and working conditions for British workers.
Andrew Marr, a BBC presenter, asked Transport Secretary Grant Shapps about the government’s reversal on his Sunday morning show.
“On Friday, you said you weren’t going to bring in foreign workers, and now you are,” Marr said.
“I said we will do whatever we need to do to make sure that things flow in this country… but we don’t want to be relying on overseas labor in the longer run, which is why this is limited to Christmas,” Shapps said.
“The whole point of leveling up is we can train our workers here, so people can do a decent day’s work and get paid for it. That’s why we are so reticent to do those things,” he said.
“On the other hand, I’m not going to stand by and watch queues forming and not respond.”
Empty shelves at a supermarket in London on Sept. 20, 2021. Retailers, manufacturers and food suppliers have reported disruptions due to a shortage of truck drivers linked to the pandemic and Britain’s departure from the European Union.
On Saturday night, the government announced that it would allow new visas for 5,000 truck drivers and 5,500 poultry workers to work in the United Kingdom until Christmas Eve. It is also urging retired drivers to help ease the shortage and said the army will help with testing new drivers.
The British Chambers of Commerce likened the announcement to “throwing a thimble of water on a bonfire.”
Roger Gale, a Conservative lawmaker, told Times Radio that the new visas were a good start, but not enough. “This is not just about lorry drivers,” he said, using the British term for truck driver, “this is also about fruit pickers.” He said Thanet Earth, the largest greenhouse complex in the country, based in his constituency, had to throw away 300,000 pounds’ worth of tomatoes because there was nobody to pick them.
“It’s all very well for the home secretary to say, ‘Domestic labor should do the job,’ but domestic labor isn’t doing the job,” Gale said.
Some questioned whether foreign workers will come to Britain for only a few months before being sent home just before Christmas.
“There is a driver shortage across Europe,” Marco Digioia, head of the European Road Haulers Association, told Britain’s Observer newspaper. “I am not sure how many would want to go to the U.K.”
Britain’s Road Haulage Association estimates that the country needs about 100,000 drivers.
Industry groups here say Brexit has exacerbated the problem by making it harder for the U.K. to recruit from the E.U., which traditionally supplied a lot of the drivers. The coronavirus pandemic has played a part, too, with some foreign workers returning to their home countries. The pandemic also put on hold testing for recruits.
Shapps rejected the notion that Brexit had worsened the situation. “Brexit gives us the flexibility to set our own rules — in this case, produce visas, because I don’t want to see these queues at all,” he told the BBC, adding that it has also helped him expand the number of tests for drivers. “We’ve benefited from some of those extra freedoms.”
David Henig, an expert in global trade, said that the situation was complex but that, “clearly, Brexit is also the reason why global strains, as there are, are exacerbated in the U.K.”
Referring to Brexit, he said, “The U.K. has made a big change to our trading relations, our people-movement relations, at exactly the point when there is a global strain on global supply chains. You got to expect in that situation you will run into problems.”