This week, fast food chain McDonald’s made a categorical announcement in the UK: it ran out of resources to produce a milkshake in 1,250 units across the country.
But this news is just a symptom of a bigger problem: the UK supply chain crisis.
It is estimated that the transport sector alone needs to fill around 100,000 vacancies to meet the demand that exists in the country. And it was warned that if the government does not do something about it, there could be a shortage in most supermarkets.
- ‘I’ve never seen anything like this’: the scarcity of products that affects the world – and your pocket
- What is behind the lack of workers in the United States
It’s not just about the transport sector: The British Association of Independent Meat Producers said this week it asked the Ministry of Justice to increase the quota of prisoners allowed to be hired in meat processing tasks to meet its demand.
They argue that they have about 14,000 vacancies they cannot fill.
“The industry has a hard time finding people to fill these vacancies. Several of our associates have hired prisoners with special permits, but that’s not enough,” the association’s Tony Goodger told British newspaper The Guardian.
“And the Ministry told us that they had a lot of demand, and that we had already reached our quota of prisoners that we could hire,” he adds.
But what are the reasons for this crisis?
A perfect storm caused by Brexit, the UK’s exit from the European Union, and the Covid-19 pandemic could be part of the answer.
To understand the problem, we can focus our attention on the most affected sector: transport.
In early August, the Road Haulage Association (RHA) issued a warning: 100,000 truck drivers were needed to meet market demand.
The UK had just lifted all restrictions imposed by the pandemic, the economy was starting to reactivate, but when it came to meeting the demand for orders, problems began.
There are several reasons why shortages have become so severe. First, the Covid-19 pandemic bears part of the responsibility.
As travel became increasingly restricted in the past year and much of the economy was at a standstill, many European drivers returned home.
And transport companies signaled that very few returned.
In addition, the pandemic also caused a major delay in the tests that drivers of heavy vehicles take to obtain a license, making it impossible to have enough new drivers behind the wheel.
Carrier associations sent a letter in June to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, saying that 25,000 fewer people had taken the test, compared to the previous year.
Before the pandemic changed everything in March 2020, Brexit had gone into effect a few months earlier — and that kind of inconvenience was already starting to show itself.
According to the same transport associations, Brexit was one of the reasons why many drivers with European citizenship returned to their home countries or decided to work elsewhere.
When the UK was part of the European Union common market, drivers could come and go as they pleased.
But the border bureaucracy that was imposed after Brexit made it very difficult for most of them to get in and out of the UK — and they preferred to stay working in European bloc countries.
As noted, drivers are paid by the mileage rather than the hour — so delays cost them money.
Driver Shona Harnett says the issue of hours puts off some potential new drivers.
“A lot of people will say that money isn’t enough for the job it is. I’ve never had a problem with money, but hours are the main thing to make it count,” she tells the BBC.
And these same reasons are also causing labor shortages in other sectors.
For example, the British Poultry Council has warned that one in six jobs, nearly 7,000 vacancies, have gone unfilled due to the return of workers from the European Union.
And that this situation could affect the offer of turkey at Christmas, which is the main dish of the celebration in many British homes.
Not only did meat processors have to recruit prisoners and ex-convicts to meet this year’s end-of-year demand, but the hospitality industry found itself in trouble to get employees for its businesses.
We are talking about the third largest private sector employer in the UK.
According to the Office of National Statistics, until June there were about 102,000 job openings in the sector, which represents an increase of 12.1% compared to 91,000 in the same period of 2019.
For several experts in the restaurant and hospitality industry, the pandemic has exposed the precariousness of the work of many of its employees — Photo: Getty Images via BBC
Now, the analysis made by experts is that the effect of Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic in this area had a different character: people who stopped working for this sector realized that other jobs paid better, and did not return.
“Brexit and the pandemic have certainly affected business. But the truth is that salaries in the hotel and restaurant sector have not been the best for many years,” Manchester hotel manager Matt Shiells-Jones tells the BBC.
“Workers who left the industry during Covid-19 realized that ‘the grass is a little greener on the other side’, after finding vacancies with better pay and fewer hours of work in other jobs,” he adds.
The most urgent measures were taken, especially with regard to the transport sector, to avoid shortages.
The British government has announced a relaxation of the working hours rules for drivers, which means they will be able to increase their daily driving limit from nine hours to 11 hours twice a week.
“This will allow drivers of heavy vehicles to travel a little longer,” a government spokesman said, “but it should only be used when necessary and should not compromise driver safety.”
The temporary extension of the drivers’ journey runs until October 3rd.
Regarding sectors such as meat and poultry, the government also announced that measures will be taken to expand a training program in the country’s penitentiaries.
The program allows inmates to train in professionally managed prison kitchens for up to 35 hours a week while seeking professional qualifications to help them find jobs on the outside.
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said it would support “all sectors with a shortage of qualified personnel wherever possible.”
“Helping inmates find work during their sentence and after their release makes them much less likely to be repeat offenders.”