The Freight Transport Association (FTA) and Road Haulage Association (RHA) have both condemned a report from the government’s Migration Advisory Committee (MAC), which has called for restrictions for lower-skilled European workers settling in the UK after Brexit.
The report, which the RHA has called “ignorant and elitist”, was commissioned last year by the Home Office to look at patterns of migration from the European Economic Area (EEA). The EEA comprises the 28 states of the EU plus Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein, and allows its citizens reciprocal freedom of movement for work.
The report’s aim was to inform a new migration system for the UK after the end of a Brexit ‘implementation period’, which is set to end on 1 January 2021 should a Brexit deal be agreed between the UK and EU.
Among its recommendations is that workers from EEA countries should not be given preference over those from other nations; and that as a “general principle”, it should be made easier for higher-skilled workers to migrate to the UK than lower-skilled workers.
“There is no way to change the migration system without creating winners and losers,” wrote committee chair Professor Alan Manning, in his foreward to the report.
“But we believe the UK should focus on enabling higher-skilled migration coupled with a more restrictive policy on lower-skilled migration in the design of its post-Brexit system.”
The committee emphasised that it was not recommending that migration should be excluded from negotiations with the EU – the outcome of which may yet have a bearing on the UK’s ability to restrict EEA migration, despite the government’s insistence that freedom of movement will end after Brexit.
But the RHA chief executive Richard Burnett said an immigration policy was required “across all skill levels”.
“It is about what our businesses need,” he remarked. “The idea that only high-skilled immigration should be allowed is both ignorant and elitist.
“The logistics industry, like many other industries, needs skilled and semi-skilled staff, capable of meeting the needs of our customers. This includes lorry drivers, forklift drivers, transport managers, warehouse operatives and highly skilled logistics IT specialists.
“Without a driver to drive the lorry or a forklift driver to load it, businesses, hospitals and supermarkets will suffer. Trucks deliver daily life. This report, in effect, puts the brake on those crucial deliveries.”
The FTA also responded with anger to the proposals, arguing that, despite repeated warnings from the transport sector about lower-skilled migrants’ importance, the committee had failed to acknowledge the value of such workers to the nation’s economy.
“The MAC report totally fails to recognise, and actively diminishes, the role of lower-skilled migrants within the UK’s economy, which is hugely disappointing from a logistics point of view,” said Sally Gilson, FTA’s head of skills.
“The job roles covered by these workers are often based in areas of low unemployment where competition for workers is already high, so Britain’s supply chain could easily be at risk if they are forced to return to their home countries.
“Yes, highly skilled workers are valuable to the economy, but so too are those whose work keeps us able to operate at home and at work, 24 hours a day. Academic achievement is not the only measure for value which should be applied to the UK workforce; everyone has their role to play in keeping the country moving and solvent.”
She continued: “The logistics sector, especially when you consider roles such as HGV drivers and warehouse staff, is reliant on access to non-UK workers, currently employing 43,000 HGV drivers, 113,000 warehouse workers and 22,000 van drivers from the EEA – and even more during peak times of year like Christmas.
“Without them, schools, shops, hospitals and retailers, as well as manufacturers and homeowners, will all find it harder to access the goods they need in order to conduct their daily lives.
“Due to the regulation of the sector, logistics businesses cannot immediately look to other non-EEA countries to help plug the skills shortages which losing these European workers will cause. And the problem is further compounded when you consider there are already more than 52,000 vacancies for HGV drivers nationwide.
“Losing the services of these vital EU workers after Brexit would be devastating to the nation’s ‘just in time’ economy – and next day deliveries would soon be a thing of the past.”
Gilson also sought to address suggestions that the logistics sector should be more proactive in recruiting UK workers, saying it was more complicated than simply placing an advertisement in a job centre.
“The logistics sector is already working hard to attract people from within the UK, using a range of tactics to engage with school and college leavers, the unemployed and those seeking a career change. But the available roles are not necessarily in the areas of the country with high unemployment rates; and for many UK workers, other jobs can seem more appealing,” she said.
“There is already a need for 52,000 HGV drivers nationwide, and that number would soar to an unachievable total if the current EEA workers were to be forced home once the UK leaves the European Union.
“If the UK’s logistics sector – the lifeblood of our economy – is to continue to deliver the goods the nation needs without delays, it needs to retain the EEA workers already employed in the UK and have a means to recruit new candidates from beyond our borders. Without them our supply chain is set to break.”
The changes proposed by the MAC report would actively discriminate against lower-skilled workers, said Gilson, restricting roles which require specialist training but do not meet the requirement for a Level 3 or above qualification.
“The government needs to take urgent action, to place more emphasis on the roles which are suffering skills shortages, and not just focus on qualification levels. Without an honest appraisal of where the problems already exist, Britain’s trading relationships could simply grind to a halt,” she warned.
“If the UK was to leave the EU without a deal, there is a real risk that those currently employed in the UK from Europe would be forced to leave, and there is no option to backfill the vacancies which this would cause in the medium to long-term.
“UK employers are already struggling to find those with the skills which logistics requires without these EEA workers: so why should the sector which is at the heart of every business and home in the UK be forced to suffer because their workforce is not all at degree levels of education?
“No-one voted for a standstill; Britain’s logistics businesses want to keep Britain trading but need staff to ensure that does not happen.”
Interested parties can read the report here.