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Drivers warn of burnout as global trucker shortage bites

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Aliaksandr Matsiash, a Belarusian exile, joined Lithuanian trucking group Baltic Transline in May. But after two weeks of training, followed by 13 weeks living in a truck based in the Netherlands — all for a mere €2,470 — the 30-year-old quit.

“It’s not a normal life for a human,” he said. “It’s like a prison, it’s not a job. You do it like a zombie.”

Analysts say a global shortage of truck drivers has persisted since the middle of the 2000s. But Matsiash’s case illustrates the human dimension of a deteriorating global driver shortage that has tipped into a crisis only recently visible to the wider public.

In the UK, supermarket shelves are missing goods, McDonald’s restaurants ran out of milkshakes this week and builders cannot access supplies, while iron ore struggles to reach Australian ports for export.

The potential consequences are serious. André LeBlanc, vice-president of operations at Petroleum Marketing Group, a Virginia-based fuel distributor, said that gas stations it supplies had run out of certain products about 1,200 times since mid-June because of driver shortages.

“You don’t get your toilet tissues and your eggs, that’s one thing. Gasoline stops — it shuts everything down,” he warned.

The transport sector’s labour issues have built up over time as multinational companies drive down supply chain costs. At the same time, the trucking workforce in developed nations has aged — the average truck driver in the UK is 55 years old — while more jobs have become computer-based.

Bob Costello, chief economist at American Trucking Associations, said that the number of drivers in general freight in the US has dropped to 430,000, down from 465,000 people at the start of 2020.

“The driver shortage in the US is getting even worse, it is as bad as it has ever been,” he added

Aliaksandr Matsiash: ‘It’s not a normal life for a human’ © Handout

Keith Newton, secretary-general of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport International, said that members in Australia and Central Asia have also reported heavy goods vehicle driver shortages of 20 per cent.

Surging demand for goods during the pandemic has hiked up volumes for hauliers to carry, while accelerated growth in the ecommerce sector has only exacerbated pressures.

“Increasingly global trade is becoming more complex, consumers want quicker deliveries, and simply there are not enough skilled HGV drivers to handle this demand around the world,” Newton said.

Truck drivers in the US have not returned to pre-pandemic levels

Girteka, one of Europe’s largest hauliers which plans to hire 7,000 new drivers in total this year, said more employees are needed per truck to allow workers to spend more time at home.

Baltic Transline disputes Matsiash’s portrayal of his work and living conditions, and says he was aware he may be required to spend extended periods of time in the truck. It maintains it “strictly adheres to the legislation in force and provides suitable lodging as well as ensures appropriate work conditions to all of its employees”.

The UK, which has an estimated 100,000-driver shortage, has been hit particularly hard not only by the departure of drivers from EU countries due to Brexit and Covid-19, but also by tax legislation reform introduced this year that drastically reduced incomes for agency workers.

Pandemic-driven backlogs at testing centres have hindered the flow of new drivers, with the UK logistics sector pushing for the stopgap solution of drivers from EU countries being given temporary visas.

Still, there are practical difficulties. “Even if we were allowed to recruit drivers from the EU, there’s a shortage of drivers there as well,” said Rod McKenzie, head of policy at the Road Haulage Association. “The only place that doesn’t have a significant shortage of drivers is Africa.”

A trainee heavy goods vehicle driver © Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

US trucking companies are also looking overseas for solutions, despite strict quotas on visas. Anda Malescu, managing partner at Miami-based Malescu Law, is helping trucking companies to source drivers from Mexico, Canada and South Africa. “Companies are increasingly desperate,” she said.

Large companies are turning on the charm offensive to hire new recruits. Walmart is offering an $8,000 signing bonus for some drivers, while British retailer John Lewis announced plans to raise driver salaries by up to £5,000 a year. UK wages for a category of LGV drivers have increased 21 per cent to £36,800 in just under a year, according to recruiter Adzuna.

But trade groups say the bonuses and better pay only encourages drivers to move from one employer to another without attracting new blood to the profession, while doing nothing to resolve the problems of drivers who do not get paid for time spent waiting around.

Line chart of £ per annum showing UK truck drivers’ salaries have risen by more than a fifth in past year

“It’s more than pay that drivers want,” said Patrick Doran, who after seven years of trucking in the UK wants to drive buses instead.

For truckers, the lack of proper facilities from toilets and parking to designated rest bays are also common complaints.

Many report a vicious cycle of labour shortages resulting in more pressure on them to fulfil more deliveries, concluding it is no longer worth the strain and long periods away from home.

“I used to love the job,” said Jose Querios, a Portuguese national who came to Britain in 1990 but left the trucking industry in April after 12 years. He now works in a quarry. “As time went on the job became harder and harder as companies would just push and push.”

The growing pressures have led observers to caution against quick fixes that paper over structural issues that have made the sector so unattractive. Any solutions to the crisis may result in higher prices for consumers.

A truck driver working at a loading location in the Netherlands © Sabine van Wechem/Getty

Herman Bolhaar, the national rapporteur on human trafficking in the Netherlands, said the Dutch government and others have not done enough to enforce regulations, let alone shine a light on the reality of truckers’ labour conditions.

He says that his country lacks sufficient information on labour exploitation related to trucking and that “we should know far more precisely what these numbers are”.

“It’s not a local issue, it’s not a national issue, it’s an international issue,” he said. “It has to do with economics, trade, cost, profit and prices but more fundamentally it’s about human rights, human dignity and fair working conditions.”

Additional reporting by Andrew Edgecliff-Johnson, Peter Foster, Philip Georgiadis and Richard Milne

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