No light at the end of the tunnel for drivers of Britain's heavy goods vehicles

A serious shortfall in HGV drivers has sparked fuel shortages and fears of empty shelves in supermarkets over Christmas. PHOTO: AFP

ASHFORD (AFP) - Sitting at a truck stop between London and the Channel Tunnel, Mr Dean Arney, a British truck driver who has been behind the wheel for 40 years, sees little to recommend his work.

"I'm separated from my wife, which goes with the job, unfortunately, it is quite common," he told AFP from his cab in Ashford in Kent in south-eastern England, a stopping point for heavy goods vehicle (HGV) drivers shuttling back and forth from the continent.

"My son asked me about getting on the road. I told him: Don't, it's not worth it," Mr Arney said as he described hard working conditions, a difficult family life and meagre compensation for the effort.

In the face of a serious shortfall in HGV drivers that has sparked fuel shortages and fears of empty shelves in supermarkets over Christmas, the British government has offered thousands of temporary visa waivers to foreign lorry drivers.

But in the week since ministers introduced the scheme to help fill vacancies for as many as 100,000 drivers, a meagre 27 applicants have come forward to drive tankers in Britain.

In an industry where the average age of drivers is nearly 58, the visa scheme has, so far, proved insufficient to attract new recruits despite the clear and present need.

Mr Steven Evans, the head of a transport company based in Liverpool in north-west England who had got back behind the wheel to help out a friend, said the government's plans were a "good thing" for the industry.

Truck stop woes

While he bemoaned the poor state of British truck stop facilities and the frequency of nighttime thefts of cargo, he said he was delighted that drivers were earning higher wages.

"I used to pay (my drivers) £1,000 (S$1,850) a week normally, but with overtime, it's become £1,400 per week," Mr Evans said, adding that wages could rise further.

Mr Arney was less optimistic about the prospects, however, saying he was paid more in the 1990s than he is currently.

He also criticised the low level of security at British truck stops. "We're charged and in a lot of the truck parks, you get here and in the morning, your curtain is slashed, load stolen, diesel stolen. It does happen in Europe but it tends to be a problem here," he said.

For 35-year-old truck driver Steven Abbot, one of the most compelling reasons to work on the continent was the food.

In Britain, drivers have to pay between £7 and £10 (S$13 and S$18) for standard fare like a lasagne and chips or a meat pie, he said.

"In France, you get your starter, your main and your dessert for €10 or €11 (S$15 or S$17). Big difference," he said.

British driver Steven Evans eats lunch as he takes a break at a truck stop in south-east England on Oct 5, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

A younger man in the industry, Mr Abott chooses to only make relatively short trips that allow him to get home each evening. Truck stop shower facilities, where the water only comes "dribbling out", are not good enough to put up with five nights a week, he said.

Mr Abbot said he turned down a contract with higher pay but where he would have had to spend most of his nights on the road.

"I could earn £10,000 more, but I wouldn't see my kids grow up," he said. Marian and Mariana-Loredana Aivanesei, a Romanian couple who are both drivers, alternate four-hour stints at the wheel of their truck on routes between Europe and North Africa.

Temporarily stranded in Ashford by an administrative problem, they said they would never consider applying to work in Britain.

"It would mean: move in here, pay a British rent," Marian said while waiting for a pizza.

Mr Evans said that Britain needed to look at the fundamental reasons behind the shortage of drivers. "We're told foreign drivers are taking our jobs. Well, there are no Brits to take them," he said.

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