Shortage in UK farmers, bus drivers reflect broader crisis

October 25, 2021 - 19:53

TEHRAN - British farmers are being forced to slash production as a vast shortfall in workers has caused an “unprecedented” amount of food to be thrown into landfills this year.

The food supply shortage is set to come at a time when imports of products from the EU are under pressure because of problems at customs checks and border controls, which have been repeatedly postponed after Brexit.

Shoppers will bear the brunt of the shortage; they have been advised to brace for more empty shelves at the supermarkets and a significant food price inflation rate. Production in the UK has fallen while more goods and food items are being imported. 

The drastic shortage of labor has added to a growing list of problems for UK farmers. They are also dealing with soaring costs for shipping, energy and fertilizer while supermarkets battle to keep prices down as they compete in the market with chains that offer better prices for goods.

Farmers say they have been forced to throw millions of pounds of products to waste bins, including tomatoes, blueberries, raspberries, apples, salad leaves, and flowers.

The National Farmers’ Union has called on the government to take immediate measures to address the crisis. The Union says farmers are making decisions now about which plant to grow for next year and cannot afford to plant crops that will go to waste.

The entire food industry is now estimated to need an extra half-million workers to plant and harvest food, pack and process it. Otherwise, retailers, restaurants and people’s homes will not get the deliveries they need further disrupting the supply chain to ordinary people. 

Leaders in the food industry have issued a warning that the situation is almost certain to get worse. The National Farmers’ Union calls on the government to allow at least 50,000 foreign workers to pick crops and tens of thousands of others to process them.

Companies that process food have been hit harder than the farmers by a fall in the number of workers as post-Brexit immigration rules mean they are not eligible to hire workers on seasonal worker visas to replace those who have already left the country.

The entire food industry is now estimated to need an extra half-million workers.

A survey by The National Farmers’ Union found that fruit and vegetable growers had 34 per cent fewer workers than they needed at the peak of the harvesting season in July and August.

In a concerning early indication of what is set to come next year, one of the UK’s largest suppliers of daffodil plants has already decided to throw 300 tons of its underground storage into the waste bins amid fears there will not be any workers to pick them in the spring.

While the government had claimed that Brexit would have created an opportunity to generate a “high-skill, high-wage economy”, fruit and vegetable farmers have pointed out that such a transition would take a long time to become a reality in gardening.

Experts say fruit-picking using robots are far less efficient and more expensive than human beings and will likely take up to seven years until they are a viable alternative. In the meantime, there are fears large numbers of agricultural businesses will cease to exist.

Meanwhile, bus firms suffer severe staff shortages as workers across the country quit “in droves” for better-paid positions driving heavy goods vehicles. Companies are being forced to cancel services because not enough drivers are available.

It comes as a shortage of lorry drivers has left Britain in turmoil as delivery rates plummeted, leading to significant disruption causing stock shortages in supermarkets, chaos at butchers and problems accessing goods from abroad. 

The lack of drivers for heavy goods vehicles has made the role much more appealing in terms of wage. Bus drivers can now earn three times more to drive lorries instead.

The Confederation of Passenger Transport UK, which represents two main intercity and Inter-regional bus operators, estimates there are more than 4,000 vacancies for bus and coach drivers at present.

Services affected by the mass exodus have been forced to cancel routes, which is the most felt by passengers.

Experts say the sudden shortfall of drivers has been caused by the ongoing shortage of lorry drivers in the haulage industry and employers throwing money at the problem with shortages instead of helping to fix it. 

A senior British Union official says, “the mindset is now if we’ve got to work in these Victorian conditions, then we might as well get £20 an hour driving the lorry, as opposed to £10 an hour driving a bus. So the bus drivers are leaving in droves to go to the other industry”. 

“The other industry” gained popularity after the UK suffered a fuel shortage that forced the government to deploy soldiers to deploy fuel while issuing special visas to address the fuel and supply chain crisis. However, only a tiny fraction of foreign drivers accepted the short-term visa offer for 5,000 migrant lorry drivers. 

The Confederation of Passenger Transport, an advocacy group representing operators of UK buses and coaches, says, “we are talking to the government and its agencies to ensure that the recruitment and training process is as streamlined and efficient as possible. What we now need to see is the requirement for a provisional licence to be issued to begin training abolished and the DVSA (Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency) not to prioritise HGV testing to resolve the shortfall in that sector at the expense of the bus and coach sector”. 

There are now driver shortages across the country with managers at bus operator, First West of England, saying the problems are “unlike any other the UK transport industry has faced” and blame a mixture of poaching, Covid, Brexit, and strike action at the government’s Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency for the shortages.

This comes as bosses from the haulage, recruitment and food sectors have warned ministers at the Government’s Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee that the UK’s lorry driver shortage is “not visibly getting better” and could take around a year to recover.

Bus company Trentbarton says, “we haven’t made a profit for the last 18 months. Other cost pressures are also going up; so fuel, for example, is costing us £100,000 more so far in 2021 than it did in 2020 because the price of fuel is escalating”. 

The worker shortage is expected to become more severe as the number of EU workers with settled status in the UK declines, further decreasing an almost empty labour force.
According to an estimate by the National Famers Union, around half of non-UK citizens who had been entitled to settled status have chosen not to remain and work in the UK.

Critics say the British government’s mishandling of the post-Brexit transition risks causing long-term damage to the UK’s supplies, with some companies already deciding to close down their businesses. 

As the UK suffers from many shortages, the now 27 nation European Union bloc is moving on. What was once a strong desire by the EU to see how Britain conducts its business post-Brexit has slowly faded away. For Brussels, the mess brought on by the British government’s policies does not seem to be an issue at the top of the agenda anymore. In essence, the EU does not appear interested in Britain’s fuel crisis or any other shortages.

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