For employers struggling to find staff, Britain’s worst labor shortage in decades is seen as endangering the post-lockdown economic recovery. For workers, this is a moment of opportunity.
“For the first time in a generation, this is a seller’s market for workers,” said Andy Prendergast, GMB National Secretary. The union organizer, who represents drivers and couriers in the logistics industry, said there was a rush of activity among members demanding better wages and conditions.
With Britain estimated to run out of 100,000 truck drivers, amid a boom in online shopping, carriers entered a bidding war, offering recruiting bonuses of up to £ 1,000 and higher wages.
“Most employers see staff draining through the door, and there is a huge risk that the runoff will become a flood if no action is taken,” Prendergast said. “Our message to employers is you need to look at this now, you can’t wait for the next pay round in April. There is a real fear that you will run out of staff.
Not all employers are listening. Labor disputes erupt in various sectors despite shortages, including at Yodel, where more than 250 drivers – delivering to Marks & Spencer, Aldi, Very and others – have voted to withdraw from wages and terms.
There have been similar disputes at Booker, which is part of the Tesco empire that handles deliveries for convenience stores Budgens and Londis, and Hanson Cement. Ocado is facing a strike after the Observer revealed that some staff working for its Ocado Zoom fast delivery service were being paid at rates that amounted to less than £ 5 an hour.
After decades of decline, union membership in the UK rose for the fourth year in a row in 2020, increasing by nearly 120,000 as employees sought to protect themselves from the risks of Covid-19 and layoffs.
Now, on the other side of the lockdown, with companies sounding the alarm on job shortages, the role of unions is shifting from saving jobs to increasing wages and conditions.
Kate Bell, head of labor rights at TUC, said: “The pandemic has certainly changed the role of unions, be it in health and safety, access to sick pay and now decent terms and conditions. . Part of the achievement of the leave program is that the unions were heavily involved and really showed why you need collective action. “
A report by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) released on Thursday showed that the lack of candidates from the EU was contributing to the staffing problems of the economy reopening, especially in transport and storage, so that the fallout from Covid collided with Brexit.
Amid severe shortages, business leaders call on government to expand visa system to allow employers to hire more staff from overseas, saying it is the only short-term solution chronic labor shortages.
In the long term, managers recognize that it is vital to invest more in training the national workforce; yet they are less comfortable talking about wages, warning that higher payrolls will fuel inflation and hit consumers in the pocket.
“Businesses have been very happy to apply capitalism to business leaders. When they can’t hire at a rate, they increase it, but then they refuse to do it for manual staff and cleaners, so we have to organize, ”said Prendergast.
Companies from all sectors told the ONS that the lack of suitable candidates was the main reason for the inability to fill vacancies at the end of August 2021, with transport and storage companies being the most likely to complain about the lack of European workers.
Among all companies facing recruitment difficulties, one in four said that a reduced number of European applicants was a factor. This figure rose to almost one in two transport and storage companies (46%), the highest of any industry.
Job vacancies exceeded 1m for the first time, the highest level on record, official figures show this week. However, the average wage is still below the peak before the 2008 financial crisis, more than 13 years later, after the worst decade of income growth since the Napoleonic Wars.
Alex Marshall, President of the Self-Employed Union of Great Britain, said: “There is no shortage of labor, there is a shortage of wages. There are people to do this work if the money offered allows them to make the sacrifice of doing this work.
Official figures show the inflation-adjusted salary including bonuses was £ 521 per week in July, £ 1 less than in February 2008, due to employers’ reluctance to pay higher wages and the impact of the rising cost of living.
Bell said unionized workers were pushing for higher wages after a decade of weak income growth. The TUC estimates that if wages had risen at the historic trending rate seen before the financial crisis, workers would be better off on average by £ 5,900.
“Workers are right to demand higher pay increases. It’s still a long way from what it should be, ”she said.
The government’s “national living wage” has helped the lowest paid workers. However, the Conservatives’ pledges made in 2015 to raise the legal floor to £ 9 an hour by 2020 have not been kept, and at £ 8.91 an hour it remains below the required level. by activists to protect workers from poverty.
With terms and conditions steadily reduced over the years, loyalty to employers was not high at the onset of the UK labor shortage crisis, Prendergast said.
“People have been abused for years, and now they say, ‘It’s my time. “