UK oil crisis highlights collapse of European road freight industry

For a week and a half, UK gas stations have been blocked by drivers looking for scarce fuel supplies.

Gas stations normally operate with their storage tank at 40% capacity and rely on “just-in-time” deliveries to replenish inventory. Two weeks ago, the persistent shortage of truck and tanker drivers disrupted supply chains, leading to panic buying.

Between September 22 and 29, there was a 190% increase in the number of people driving to gas stations, peaking at over 400% on September 25. Each customer bought an average of 22% more fuel than normal.

At the height of the crisis, on the weekend of September 25-26, the average fuel capacity at gas stations fell to 16.6 percent, with 50 to 90 percent running completely dry in different parts of the country. country. On September 28, national traffic fell to 86% of pre-pandemic levels. Health workers and other key workers warned they could not get to work.

A sign reading “We have no fuel, awaiting delivery” at a service station in the south of England (WSWS Media)

Although stocks have started to rise again, a fifth of stations in London and South East are still fuel-free and 18% had only one quality available. In the rest of the country, 8% are empty and 6% have only one class.

Shortages have contributed to a sharp rise in fuel prices, with gasoline at an eight-year high and nearing a record high. It was also driven by a global increase in the cost of oil, up 10% from September and is expected to rise further.

After initially ignoring the problem for days, the government announced on September 25 that it would launch a temporary visa program requiring 5,000 truck drivers to come from Europe to work in the UK by delivering fuel. and food from the end of this month, until Christmas Eve. they would be thrown out again.

The popular uproar forced the extension of this regime until the end of February. But as the government seeks to immediately recruit around 300 drivers, the Times and the Department for Business report, which so far have only filed 27 applications. Prime Minister Boris Johnson says the number is 127.

On September 30, Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab suggested using low-level offenders to fill the shortage of heavy trucks.

On October 4, the army was deployed with great fanfare to help with the fuel supply. Two hundred soldiers have been made available, but only half have the skills to operate tankers.

The fuel crisis has unleashed a well-deserved wave of outrage against the government and its catastrophic Brexit policy. But the events of the past two weeks point to a broader crisis in the European economy.

According to think tank Transport Intelligence, the shortage of around 76,000 truck drivers in the UK (estimated at 100,000 elsewhere) is part of a general shortage of around 400,000 drivers in Europe. Poland is the hardest hit, with a shortage of 124,000, or 37% of jobs, although this is likely the result of Polish drivers working in the more prosperous countries of the European Union. In Germany, 45,000 to 60,000 are missing; in France, 43,000; in Spain and Italy, 15,000; in Denmark, Norway and Sweden, between 2,500 and 5,000.

The shortages have plagued the road freight sector for 15 years and have been exacerbated by the pandemic and the recent reopening of the economy driving up demand. This pan-European collapse in such a vital economic sector is the result of decades of private profiteering and deregulation that have eroded the wages and working conditions of logistics workers.

There are over half a million HGV license holders in the UK, but well over 200,000 of them choose not to fill the vacancies. A survey of over 600 UK industry figures by the Road Haulage Association found that retirement, changing work rules, the pandemic, low wages (not to mention appalling working conditions ) and drivers leaving the industry were some of the main reasons for the shortage of workers.

The average age of a UK truck driver has risen to 55, less than 1% are under 25. From 7,500 retirements per year in 2010, the sector has grown to 10,000 per year in 2020, or 4% of the workforce. The total number of people employed as drivers decreased by 7% between 2019 and 2020.

The same process was at work in Europe. Politics reported Raluca Marian, EU advocacy director at the International Road Transport Organization, warning that it was “easy to calculate a doomsday scenario” for the EU, based on events in the UK. In Europe, the average age of a driver is 44 years old.

The crisis is more acute in Britain in part because of Brexit. Between 10,000 and 20,000 European drivers left the UK after its withdrawal from the union. Brexit delays at ports and disruption of import-export routes have also played a role, exacerbating the long-standing export imbalance between the UK and Europe, which is forcing many trucks to return empty. of Great Britain and makes roads relatively less desirable for business.

But the dominant factor is the UK’s faster destruction of workers’ protections and massive free market membership since the Thatcher government came to power in 1979. A predominantly Eastern European workforce, than workers UK based have left the industry in droves.

Over 55,000 domestic drivers have left the industry in the past 18 months alone. The World Socialist Website reported on the particularly appalling conditions these workers faced throughout the pandemic and the strike actions organized by base drivers in August. Richard Simpson, former editor-in-chief of Trucking Magazine, written in the Guardian, “Why would they want to go back to work?” The facilities are poor, the schedules brutal and the responsibilities expensive. And it will only get worse. “

Basically, the same causes are behind the shortages of farm workers, slaughterhouse workers, construction workers, nursing home staff and nurses, among others. Basic socio-economic infrastructure was dilapidated under the rule of a super-rich oligarchy whose only concern was debt and speculation fueled the expansion of their stock market portfolios, without worrying too much about maintaining industries and most basic social infrastructure, not to mention the development of a skilled and adequately remunerated workforce.

Even senior Conservative politicians have, anonymously, blamed the current crisis on “a failure of the free market” and accused British companies of being “drunk on cheap labor“, according to the report. Telegraph .

Deploying the armed forces to a growing range of basic social tasks – 5,000 to help with testing, vaccination and medical care during the pandemic, and now around 100 each to help the Scottish Ambulance Service and the sector tanker trucks – is the most striking confirmation of the ongoing collapse of British capitalism.

Not only can the free market not provide the necessary workers, but the state also has no resources to mobilize except for its armed forces, and even these can barely muster a few hundred people with the skills required.

No social difficulty will cause the oligarchs or their representatives to change course, whether under Johnson or the distant prospect of a Labor government. Their solution is the increased exploitation of the working class and a reflective turn towards authoritarian measures. The use of the military will inevitably lead to demands for increased recruitment to plug the gaping holes in the economy. But these forces will then be used to break workers’ resistance to poverty wages and sweatshop conditions.

For the working class, the only way out of this crisis is to use its immense social power as the engine of the European and world economy to take control of society from the super-rich. Production must be organized not on the basis of an anarchic and fierce competition for private profit, but on rational and democratic planning to meet social needs.