HGV HGV. Photo: Alan Sansbury / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0, license linked at bottom of article

The problem in road haulage is down to low pay and poor conditions, but unionised workers can win improvement for all low-paid workers, argues Richard Allday

The first thing to say about the current crisis in logistics is that there is no shortage of qualified HGV drivers in the UK.

The real shortage is of qualified drivers prepared to do the job. Drivers who have got out of the industry (it’s estimated there are more than 50,000 vocational licence holders in road transport who have escaped) have no intention of returning to it, and there is a real shortage of new entrants to the industry. The average age of an HGV driver in the UK is 57. This is the real source of the current crisis in logistics.

The problem is not confined to driving lorries, it applies across a range of low-paid, under-valued industries: hospitality, care-work, agriculture, food processing, the health service. All of these are currently experiencing severe labour shortages. And in each industry, the employers share a common litany of explanations (or, as I prefer, excuses). The central theme is that it’s anybody’s fault but their own: it’s Brexit (i.e. the government), or it’s a lack of funding (i.e. the government) or it’s a lack of the work ethic in modern youth (i.e. society’s to blame; read ‘the government’).  

In each case, it come down to employers bemoaning the fact that they can no longer get away with paying poverty wages (and relying on the state to supplement them) to a workforce that they treat like dirt. This is what the commentators blaming it on Brexit actually mean: there is no longer the readily available supply of cheap labour for them to exploit.

Each of the industrial sectors affected has its own specific problems, as well as the general ones of low pay, long hours, and a lack of respect. In road haulage, the ‘long hours, low pay’ culture has been endemic for decades, and the job has got worse with the employers constant drive to ‘deskill’ and control.

Minimal pay rises

There’s been a lot of talk in the press about ‘silly money’ being thrown at drivers. Just so readers can understand the background, let’s look at some of those fixes. All three of the biggest players in container haulage, which dominate the UK market, are all resolutely hostile to collective bargaining. Together they employ around 4,500 drivers, and each recently announced ‘significant’ pay rises to their driving workforce:

  • Goldstar Transport (now owned by haulage heavyweight Turners of Soham) last month proposed a new pay structure for its drivers: an increase in the hourly rate to £10.65 an hour. That is for a basic eleven hours a day. After eleven hours, ‘overtime’ will be paid at £12.50 an hour. In the pay proposal, they give estimated earnings ‘based on a typical 68 hours per week’.
  • Maritime Transport, another of the big three, recently ‘granted’ their drivers a pay rise which the owner proudly claimed would cost the company in the order of £10m, which just happens to be almost exactly the amount the directors awarded themselves in the last published company accounts!
  • YCT, owned by Uniserve, the last of the big three, in their ‘New Deal’ promised a rise of ‘New Scale: 60 hours, on £10.00 per hour. Overtime: £12.75 per hour, payable on hours over 60 hrs’. Uniserve is the company which landed a £730m contract to purchase and supply PPE for the NHS at the start of the pandemic.

These are professional drivers, pulling 44-tonne artics, in one of the economically crucial sectors of the economy. Why don’t youngsters want to come into an industry where the employers expect an ‘average’ 68 hour week? Where overtime gets paid after the first sixty hours, at £12.75 an hour? Where you can spend the entire week stuck in a metal cell 8’6” by 9’6”?  Even your average dingley dell in nick gives you more room than that. And in nick, you are at least guaranteed toilet and washing facilities.

On top of this, increasingly your work is being constantly monitored: by the satnav feeding back your location in real time; by on-board telematics: if you brake too hard, or accelerate too hard, or stay in the wrong gear too long, you will effectively be fined (you lose your ‘telematics bonus’). Additionally, these days increasingly you will be monitored by CCTV facing into the cab.

Add to this rosy picture the fact that you are treated as the lowest of the low by the traffic office, and what’s not to like? Why don’t youngsters want to come into the industry? Workshy, that’s their problem. Youngsters these days just don’t want to put in a day-and-a-half’s work.

Until the employers in logistics address the very real problem of why nobody wants to enter the industry, all the short-term fixes they are offering are just that: short term.

Excuses for low pay

The constant justification for low pay from the industry is that: ‘Road haulage is a low profit margin industry.’ Don’t make me laugh! The big fish are snapping up competitor’s left, right, and centre. Maritime bought up Roadways Containers and DHL Securicor, and have just bought Wincanton’s Container division; Uniserve bought up Youngs (YCT) and James Kemball Transport; Turners of Soham bought up Macintyres, Jack Richards, Darts, and Goldstar. Why? Because they like losing money? Because they feel sorry for drivers and don’t want to see them losing their jobs? Cobblers. They bought them because there are rich pickings in road haulage. Maritime paid their managing director £3.5m in 2019, and all of the firms doing the buying have seen their valuation massively increase over the last ten years.

Road haulage operates on tight margins for two reasons: one, they pay very expensive accountants to do what very expensive accountants are paid to do: manage the figures so they tell the story the owners want told. Secondly, they undercut and undercut to win contracts. Every time fuel prices rise, they find the money to fill the tanks, and they find the money to buy new tractor units and trailers. It’s only when the issue of drivers’ pay comes up that ‘there’s no money to spare’.   

Now the chickens are coming home to roost, and the bosses have suddenly discovered a ‘magic money tree’ that they never realised existed. This puts drivers in a very strong position, and raises specific challenges for Unite, traditionally the dominant union in road transport.

Challenges for trade unionists

The first challenge is to get a cohesive response to the money on offer from employers. In many cases, when ‘free money’ is on offer in a traditionally tight-fisted industry, the initial response is ‘grab the money and run’. So you see the offers of loyalty bonuses in an attempt to retain the drivers they’ve already got, or similar amounts as ‘signing on’ fees, or introduction bonuses to drivers who bring new drivers to a firm. In many cases, these bonuses are in the order of £2,000 or more, and these are the headline figures the press delights in reporting.

The problem with these offers is that they are one-offs, and not contractual. In other words, they are designed to get the employer over the immediate hump, which is the run up to Christmas. When the pressure recedes and the traditional haulage slack period starts in January-March, these bonuses are likely to disappear with the winter snow.

So the first challenge for Unite is to bake this money into actual pay: if the employer can offer an annual loyalty bonus of £2,000, they can obviously raise basic pay by £40 a week. This is an argument that the union is already winning in better-organised workplaces.

The second challenge is to win the argument that if the employer, off their own back, is offering £x then the union should go for £x+, on the grounds that no gaffer is going to offer the maximum they can afford; they will offer just as little as they think they can get away with. This is also proving relatively easy to win.

The third, and significant challenge, is how to address the very real problem of the large proportion of drivers who are not in the union, and act as a drag anchor on the progress that can be made across the sector.

Unions can win for all

The decision by the new General Secretary, Sharon Graham, to call a national conference of union reps in road haulage and distribution next week in Birmingham is a very welcome initiative.

  • It provides the opportunity to spread ‘best practice’ across the sector, by allowing reps who have addressed the two challenges above to demonstrate the potential gains that can be made.
  • It allows the reps to discuss, for the first time at a workplace level, a union-wide response to the opportunities offered by the current shortage.
  • Even more significantly, it provides for a real discussion on a national strategy to drive up wages, terms and conditions across the industry, by the people who will have to carry this argument among the wider membership.
  • Lastly, and at least as important, it allows our reps to discuss a strategy to deal with the problem posed above, of how to widen and deepen the influence of collective organisation in areas where the employers have been able to run an open-shop operation for far too long.  

Sharon Graham has already committed the union to supporting any campaign to gain the respect and reward that professional drivers deserve, resourced and sustained for the long-term, so the mood music is sweet.

The challenge now is for our reps and activists to develop, and deliver, an effective campaign. A General Secretary can support, but cannot substitute for, the self-activity of workers in the industry. The minimum I would like to see come out of the conference is: a minimum hourly rate for professional drivers, ambitious but credible; a statement that professional drivers should enjoy the same basic working day as most workers in other industries, the 8-hour day.

There is no problem about having guaranteed working weeks of 42, or 48 hours or whatever it might be, but any hours worked over eight should be classed as overtime, and attract an overtime premium. No driver should have their daily or weekly rest reduced without their express agreement (so no more traffic operators telling drivers they’ve got a fifteen-hour day left, so use it). A commitment to aiming to win sectoral bargaining, so that all drivers, whether their employer recognises the union or not, has a guaranteed minimum of standards (which would mean our members on organised sites refusing to service ‘non-compliant’ hauliers). This would help in driving union membership up, as drivers would see the positive benefits of union membership.

There is a lot more I could say, but the editor is insisting the article appear this year, not next, so I will just close on this: a successful campaign in the unorganised sector (predominantly general haulage) would provide a template and a boost for the millions of overworked, underpaid, and disrespected workers in other sectors, such as care, hospitality, food processing, etc. Union power could resurface, after decades of disrespect, as an attractive solution for millions. Everything you buy, in a shop or online, has been transported by a professional driver. We need to utilise this power. Working people everywhere will benefit.

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Richard Allday

Richard Allday is a member of Unite the Union’s National Executive, a branch secretary and shop steward in road haulage.  A member of Counterfire, his comrades know him better as 'the angry trucker'.

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