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Is Brexit Britain an answer to being “drunk on cheap labour”?

This week’s British Conservative Party conference is threatening to turn more ideological shibboleths on their head it would seem. While Labour leader Keir Starmer and others on the left have called for more visas to be made available to European HGV drivers to address the shortage, Tory ministers have rolled out the language of old-time class struggle.

In response to those blaming the crisis on Brexit, several ministers including Chancellor Rishi Sunak have focused on the business leaders in the affected sectors. A source described as being close to one minister stated that “we have told them repeatedly they shouldn’t pull the lever of uncontrolled immigration every time. But they’re drunk on cheap labour.”

In other words, the government is saying that increasing wages of lorry drivers and other low-income workers is the best solution to the crisis, rather than the practise of undercutting workers by importing and relying on cheap labour.

Dismissing Brexit as the main reason for the current woes, the government has claimed that many businesses simply refused to prepare for the changes that were going to follow the UK departure from the EU. They say that those who did make such preparations, such as Tesco, have been generally unaffected by shortages.

The implication is that low-wage employers in transport, retail and agriculture were hoping that the government would succumb to pressure and allow access to low wage eastern European workers to continue as before.

In response, the Tories have referred to their promise – which was immensely popular among working class voters who supported leaving the EU – to create a higher wage domestic economy. One of the possible consequences of this as part of the current crisis is that Prime Minister Boris Johnson may announce an increase in the statutory minimum wage in his leader’s speech to conference on Wednesday.

One of the difficulties facing the haulage sector in particular is that the low wages paid are not as attractive as they once were. Poland, for example, is enjoying strong economic growth – without cheap migrant labour inputs – and many Polish drivers who travelled to Britain and other European states for work no longer wish to work under the relatively poor wage structures and conditions that apply.

That this is not solely – or even mainly – a Brexit issue is proven by the fact that other countries, including Ireland, are experiencing similar shortages. The wages paid for what can be a very demanding job – entailing long hours, much of it away from home – can be poor, as can overall conditions of employment.

In the UK, the average wage has been estimated as £32,100 (€37,675) for experienced drivers. In the Republic, the average wage is estimated to be €34,152.  One of the biggest haulage companies in this country, Nolan’s, have said they have increased wages by 20% which is both an indication of the supply problems but also an admission that the market can sustain better wage levels despite the predictable references to “low margins.”

It is noticeable that the number of Dáil questions requesting a speeding up of the issuing of work permits has increased since the resumption. That is partly a reflection of the slowness in processing a significantly increased number of applications. It is also an indication that certain sectors in Ireland as in Britain have become dependent on low-wage labour.

Uprooting people from their communities, families and countries to become low-paid workers elsewhere is hardly good for either society, whatever about the boost to profit margins of big business.

Irish employers and overseas employers based here have clearly been impacted by the improving conditions for eastern and central European workers and are seeking to compensate for that by recruitment from outside of the EU/EEA area.

They, like their British counterparts, will of course refer to the demands of the market. This excuse, neglects that the market is telling them that wages must rise in order to satisfy that demand. It is pretty much Adam Smith 101 for those who don’t seem to appreciate when economic laws don’t always rebound to their favour.

Unlike the dreaded British Tories of course, we may be certain that our own centre right/left blancmange backed by the mealy-mouthed post socialist left who are terrified of criticising anything to do with immigration, will prove far more pusillanimous.

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