For employers struggling to find staff, Britain’s worst labor shortage in decades is seen as putting the economic recovery from the lockdown at risk. For workers, it is a moment of opportunity.
“For the first time in a generation, it’s a vendor’s market for workers,” said Andy Prendergast, GMB’s national secretary. The union organizer, who represents drivers and couriers in the logistics sector, said there was a lot of activity among members pushing for better wages and conditions.
With Britain estimated to have fewer than 100,000 truck drivers, amid an online shopping boom, hauliers have entered a bidding war, offering hiring bonuses of up to £ 1,000 and higher salaries.
“Most employers are watching staff walk out the door and there is a great risk that the drip will turn into a flood if action is not taken,” said Prendergast. “Our message to employers is to look at this now, they can’t wait for the next round of pay in April. There is a real fear that it is not personal. “
Not all employers are listening. Industrial disputes are emerging in various sectors despite the shortage, including at Yodel, where more than 250 drivers, handing over to Marks and Spencer, Aldi, Very and others, have voted to withdraw over wages and conditions.
There have been similar disputes at Booker, part of the Tesco empire that manages deliveries for the Budgens and Londis convenience stores, and Hanson cement. Ocado is facing a strike after the Observer revealed that some employees working for its express delivery service Ocado Zoom were being paid at rates that ran at less than £ 5 per hour.
After decades of decline, union membership in the UK increased for the fourth year in a row in 2020, increasing by nearly 120,000 in 2020 as employees sought protection against the risks of Covid-19 and layoffs.
Now, on the other side of the lockdown, with companies sounding the alarm about job shortages, the role of unions is shifting from saving jobs to improving wages and conditions.
Kate Bell, director of labor rights at the TUC, said: “The pandemic has certainly changed the role of unions, be it health and safety, access to sick pay and now decent terms and conditions. Part of understanding the licensing scheme is that the unions were very involved and really demonstrated why collective action is needed. “
A report from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) on Thursday showed that the lack of applicants from the EU was contributing to the challenges in staffing for the reopening of the economy, especially in transport and storage, as the consequences of Covid collided with Brexit.
In the face of dire shortages, business leaders are calling on the government to expand the visa system to allow employers to hire more staff from abroad, saying this is the only short-term solution to chronic labor shortages.
In the long term, executives recognize that increased investment in training for the domestic workforce is vital; however, they are less comfortable talking about wages, warning that higher wage bills will fuel inflation and hit consumers on the wallet.
“Companies have been very happy to apply capitalism to CEOs. When they can’t use a fee, they increase it, but then they refuse to do it for manual personnel and cleaners, so we have to organize ourselves, ”said Prendergast.
Companies from all industries told the ONS that the lack of suitable candidates was the main reason they were unable to fill vacancies at the end of August 2021, and that transportation and warehousing companies are the most likely to complain about the lack of EU workers.
Among all companies experiencing recruitment challenges, one in four said a small number of applicants from the EU was a factor. This increased to almost one in two (46%) transportation and warehousing businesses, the highest of any sector.
Job vacancies have soared above 1 million for the first time, the highest level on record, according to official figures this week. However, the median salary is still below the peak before the 2008 financial crisis, more than 13 years later, after the worst decade of earnings growth since the Napoleonic wars.
Alex Marshall, president of the IWGB union, said: “There is no shortage of labor, there is shortage of wages. There are people who can do these jobs if the money offered is adequate so that they will sacrifice to do those jobs. “
Official figures show inflation-adjusted pay, including bonuses, was £ 521 per week in July, £ 1 below the February 2008 level, amid employers’ reluctance to pay higher wages and the impact of an increased cost of living.
Bell said unionized workers were pushing for higher wages after a decade of weak earnings growth. The TUC estimates that if wages had risen at the historical trend rate observed before the financial crisis, workers would be better off at £ 5,900 on average.
“The workers are right to ask for higher pay increases. It’s still way behind where it should be, ”he said.
The government’s national living wage has helped the lowest paid workers. However, conservative promises made in 2015 to raise the legal floor to £ 9 per hour by 2020 have not been fulfilled, as £ 8.91 per hour remains below the level that activists say is required to protect workers. workers falling into poverty.
With terms and conditions gradually reduced over the years, employer loyalty was not high at the start of the UK labor shortage crisis, Prendergast said.
“They have taken advantage of people for years and now they say: ‘this is my moment.’
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism