Perishable Movements Ltd takes to floor of Fruit Logistica for first time

Deeper issues at heart of driver shortage as crisis sets to intensify

Gill McShane

The disruption highlights longstanding recruitment difficulties plus food pricing concerns, and may worsen as consumer demand rises this summer.

Real solutions are needed to resolve the current shortage of delivery drivers in the UK. That is the consensus of representatives from the fresh produce supply chain, who point out that this crisis has long been on the cards, while the further easing of lockdown restrictions, plus increased staycationing this summer, will intensify pressure on the transport of domestic and imported produce.

Recruitment Difficulties

Covid, Brexit, the introduction of IR35 tax rule changes and a lack of driver training and testing during the pandemic have been blamed for the current crisis but widespread labour difficulties have been building for some time throughout the produce industry, including recruiting and retaining delivery drivers.

“This is a combination of factors beyond the produce industry’s control,” Nigel Jenney, CEO of the Fresh Produce Consortium (FPC) tells PBUK. “The lack of HGV drivers has hit the headlines but the shortage is across the board. We are desperately short of people in many areas – from growing the crops to packing and distribution. All of these people play a critical role, and if any part of the supply chain fails, the whole chain fails.”

The average daily staff shortfall for produce businesses is 10-25 per cent, according to Jenney. “This is all day, every day and it is simply not sustainable,” he stresses. “No business can operate with those shortfalls. It drives up inefficiencies, costs and, frankly, food waste, which has increased tremendously in recent weeks. The Government cannot assume that the industry can keep on delivering. We need real, effective solutions.”

With many European workers having returned home due to Covid and Brexit, reportedly the Government is insisting that: “Employers should focus on investing in our domestic workforce, especially those needing to find new employment, rather than relying on labour from abroad”.

However, that is easier said than done, especially for picking, packing and delivery jobs. Dan McCullough, owner of First Choice Produce , a wholesale supplier of fine foods to leading hotels and restaurants in London and the Home Counties, has struggled to employ domestic drivers and packers.

“All of my drivers are from Europe,” he says. “I cannot employ an English person to do a delivery or packing job; they don’t turn up for the interview. We don’t even operate heavy goods vehicles; we operate light vans, so drivers can use a normal license.”

McCullough feels strongly that there is a lack of incentive for the unemployed to work. “It aggravates me when you hear about labour shortages and yet there are 2.6m people unemployed. At the moment, there’s no incentive to work. The Government needs to make it as easy as possible for able people to come back to work, either in the public or private sector, and possibly with a subsidy. Instead of the Government paying unemployment benefits, they should pay employers to top-up their workers’ salaries, for example.” Jason Tanner, owner of foodservice provider Premier Fruits , does employ a large percentage of UK drivers within his workforce but he agrees that attracting domestic recruits is not easy.

“For the most part we need night-time deliveries, and for a lot of drivers they would rather have a day-time job,” Tanner explains. “It’s extremely difficult, and it’s not just a problem with HGV drivers but also the normal 3.5 tonne truck drivers. We’re short of around 25-30 drivers, and we’re using agency drivers for probably 50 per cent of our labour.”

The career does need to be made more attractive, says Wayne Lawlor, who handles sales and procurement at DG Imports , a long-established fresh produce import company.

“Companies could offer drivers a flexitime contract to work three nights on and three nights off, instead of six consecutive days,” he suggests. “Companies would have to employ more drivers but they would have more flexibility. More people want a work-life balance these days, and if employers make jobs more appealing via tax, holiday and flexitime incentives there are plenty of people out there to work. Of course, there are many deeper, underlying problems which will be harder to correct but this is a good starting point.”

Compared with Europe, Lawlor also notes that there is a low number of female drivers in the UK, plus he says specialist rest, food and servicing areas are inferior. “Vast improvements are another essential going forward,” he states.

Jenney at FPC would like to see more Government schemes to encourage people to work in the produce industry given that businesses have been promoting actively their benefits, company lifestyle and worker support for many years already but have not had the adequate response.

And while the Government has introduced the Seasonal Workers Scheme for pickers, Jenney says it has “ignored” the need for labour beyond the farm gate. “The Government says the labour challenge is on the farm but it’s elsewhere too,” he says. “You cannot automate many areas of the food production process, plus the costs are too high for many businesses. At the moment, the situation has been left almost for the industry to resolve itself.”

Pricing Problem

Another crux of the problem is the price that UK retailers pay for fresh produce, according to Lawlor from DG Imports. “For years costs have risen for drivers, transportation, refrigeration, staff etc. but the price of produce is more or less the same because the mentality is stuck in the doldrums,” he states. “Sooner or later this needs to change – the supermarkets can’t go on like this because it isn’t fair.

“As I understand, in Germany there is a system whereby retailers can’t sell food for less than what it costs to produce and supply. In the UK, the retailers are too busy fighting each other. The prices of many products are being squeezed – produce, meat, milk – and by the time the growers and farmers are paid there is not a lot left.”

Added to that, Lawlor says the UK has slipped from its position as a first-choice export market to a destination for cheaper fruit and vegetables. “We’re becoming a dumping ground as emerging markets develop. Producers are supplying their first-, second- and third-choice markets and the UK is receiving what is left.

“Everyone is hiding behind Covid but the bigger issue was there long before this [driver shortage]. “Volumes on trucks has been doing down and costs have risen. Covid, Brexit, rule changes and labour shortages have only made it more difficult for the transport business. The current driver shortage is highlighting a small part of a bigger problem, and something needs to be done.”

Worse To Come

As the days and weeks go on, FPC’s Jenney believes the produce industry is being pushed to a crisis level with no let-up in sight.

“Foodservice and wholesale can open up more broadly in the next few weeks and that will put increasing demand on the industry,” he points out. “The summer period will see no respite either, as most consumers will not be abroad on holiday as usual so demand will not decline as normal. We need people [to work] and we can’t do it any other way.”

Currently, the Federation of Wholesale Distributors (FWD ) estimates that there is a shortfall of 70,000 HGV drivers in the UK.

“The driver shortage has reached crisis point for some of our members and we believe it is likely to get worse as more hospitality venues open and demand increases,” commented FWD Chief Executive James Bielby.

In agreement is the Road Haulage Association (RHA) , which pegs the shortage at more than 100,000 drivers.

“As the summer holidays draw near and lockdown restrictions relax, the pressure that will be put on the industry responsible for keeping shelves full will increase and the producers of goods will be faced with having stock of goods they can’t get moved,” RHA stated. “Empty shelves are already becoming apparent and, if not urgently addressed, the situation will only get worse.”

The present impact on produce deliveries appears to vary across the UK, with some areas facing more severe driver shortages than others.

The UK’s largest retailer Tesco confirmed to PBUK that it continues to work closely with its suppliers, and continues to have good availability for customers. Nonetheless, at an industry-wide roundtable last week the grocery giant informed the Government’s Department of Transport that its suppliers are being forced to bin 48 tonnes of fresh food every week because there are too few lorry drivers to transport produce to stores. That is equivalent to around two trucks’ worth of food each week.

Tesco confirmed that this is short-dated food that has been delivered late from suppliers to Tesco distribution centres – either by supplier or third-party drivers. And where safe to do so, Tesco donates to food banks or local charities food that it cannot sell.

The British Retail Consortium (BRC) described the disruption as “minor”; issuing to PBUK the following statement: “Retailers are aware of a fall in HGV driver numbers, resulting in minor disruption to some supply chains,” commented Andrew Opie, Director of Food & Sustainability at the BRC. “Supermarkets are working closely with their suppliers to ensure that consumers still have access to the same great selection of goods.”

For Premier Fruits, while its London hub has weathered the storm, its branches in Brighton and in Bicester have struggled to find drivers.

“There are a lot of distribution centres in centre of the country, so there is a lot more demand for drivers there, and in Brighton there is a shortage of drivers in general,” explains Tanner. “We’ve had no cancellation of deliveries but it’s causing a few delays to delivery times although our customers are working with us to keep the produce moving.”

DG Imports is witnessing difficulties across a number of transport companies and hubs, including order cut-off times being shortened. “They’re all struggling and running out of solutions,” he says. “They’re giving excuses for why they can’t fulfil their normal services which would have been unacceptable eighteen months to two years ago.”

Over the last six months, mistakes have begun to emerge as the pressure mounts. “Employees are not turning up for work, and transportation companies are having to recruit those with less experience to manage the orders, resulting in missed deliveries,” Lawlor reveals.

Potential Solutions

A range of short- and long-term solutions have been put forward by industry bodies and companies across the food supply chain.

Lawlor at DG Imports believes fast-tracked training and the opening of new test centres is needed, considering that HGV drivers are getting older in the UK and testing came to a standstill due to the pandemic.

“This must be a short-term blip and not a long-term issue,” he urges. “Swift action needs to be taken. For me, it’s simple to fix – train more examiners to teach new drivers. Offer a short-term contract to HGV drivers who are close to retirement age. Then approach people who are unemployed, or those who have experience of driving a bigger vehicle and need only a small amount of training.

“Next, open a couple of training and testing centres around the country, and invite drivers to complete an intensive two-week training course with bed and board. This could be advertised in the national papers. Also, help new recruits with the paperwork to remove the stress. There are a lot of people who would jump at the chance, and I think that would increase driver numbers very quickly.”

Ultimately, Lawlor says people need to realise that delivery drivers offer an essential service. “If a lorry driver cannot deliver produce to its destination, then, effectively, what everyone else does further back in the supply chain is worthless,” he laments. “The sooner the UK is more self-reliant on drivers rather than going abroad, the better.”

The Federation of Wholesale Distributors (FWD) has called on the Government to reinstate the temporary extension of drivers’ hours (from 9 to 11), and has proposed to ministers that Army drivers are put on standby to ensure food distribution is not interrupted.

Other proposals put forward by FWD include: ending furlough for HGV drivers, temporarily waiving requirements for medical certificates and Driver CPC training certificates for those which have run out.

In the short-term, the Road Haulage Association (RHA) says the Home Office needs to add HGV drivers to the UK Shortage Occupation List, and consider a Seasonal or Temporary Visa Scheme for qualified lorry drivers, like the one that is currently available to farm workers. This week the RHA has written to the Prime Minister stressing the need for action.

Additionally, in a meeting with the Government last week, the RHA re-emphasised the need for urgent actions to deal with the immediate shortage. The RHA highlighted issues around driver training and apprenticeships, Driver CPC, short-term access to non-UK labour, parking and facilities for drivers, and the need to treat drivers and the sector with the respect they deserve.

Those proposals have been echoed by the Cold Chain Federation , which is calling for a fresh approach to attract more young people into the industry too.

The British Retail Consortium, meanwhile, told PBUK that: “Government must rapidly increase the number of HGV driving tests taking place while also looking for a longer-term solution to this issue”.

At the same time, FPC continues to lobby the Government to adopt a pragmatic approach. “The industry has proven to be highly innovative, flexible and resilient in the last couple of years,” Jenney tells PBUK. “But a point comes where we need flexibility to effectively feed the nation. “This impacts on both imported and domestically-grown food,” Jenney continues. “FPC will continue, with members of the food industry, to reinforce our concerns to Government in search of practical solutions. This may mean that Government has to change some elements of policy, such as relaxing immigration rules.

“The food industry as a group has endeavoured to emphasise to Government about the problems. We are not crying wolf; we are trying to demonstrate the difficulty of putting fresh food and flowers on the tables of consumers.



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