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As UK beckons truck drivers, many in Poland say ‘no thanks’

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In the weeks since the UK government announced it would offer 5,000 temporary visas to truck drivers from continental Europe as part of a campaign to ease supply chain pressures ahead of Christmas, Lukasz Skopinski, a Polish truck driver now in the United States works Kingdom, gave this advice to friends back home:

Do not bother.

“I talk to them on WhatsApp while I’m driving, and when this topic comes up, I tell them it’s just not worth moving here,” he said in a recent interview. “They are better off with a contract in Germany. The money is about the same, and they’ll be a lot closer to home.”

So rather than a source of immediate relief, visa offerings have become an informal measure of the appeal of post-Brexit, late-pandemic Britain to a group that once considered this island one of the most attractive and lucrative places to visit. to settle and work.

Interviews with Polish drivers, on both sides of the English Channel, suggest Britain has lost its luster. At the same time, an improving economy in Poland has made moving much less attractive.

At a truck stop on the highway about an hour east of Warsaw, in a town called Maliszew, it was easy to find drivers who had heard of the British visas. The challenge was to find someone who would like to have one.

“Financially, things are good here,” said Kazimierz Makowski, who transported wheat from Poland to Latvia. “I’d make another £1,000 a month there”—about $1,300—“but I’d have to pay for an apartment, so it’s not really profitable for me to move.”

“Honestly, I’d rather live in France,” said Miroslaw Kotynia, getting into his 12-wheeler after a quick lunch.

Hoping to alleviate long lines at gas stations, empty supermarket shelves and a Christmas without mince pies, the Department of Transport began recruiting drivers abroad in October. Official figures have not been released, but in mid-October, Oliver Dowden, a co-chair of the Conservative Party, said on a radio program that a “relatively limited” number of applications had been received and just over 20 had been submitted. approved.

Some drivers who have worked in Britain said the country had become xenophobic since Brexit, which came into effect in January 2020. The campaign to leave the European Union was championed most strongly by the United Kingdom Independence Party, whose leader, Nigel Farage, pushed for a law that would ensure “UK jobs for British workers”. In 2013, he warned of a ‘Romanian crime wave’.

“Five years ago, we lost some drivers to England, even when they knew Brexit was a possibility,” said Radoslaw Balcewicz, an adviser to a transport company in Warsaw. “After Brexit, many of them called and said they would never work there again.”

Drivers reported hearing the occasional nativist comment, variations of “You should go back to your country.” More often the general feeling is that the atmosphere in Britain has become less welcoming. Even the time limit on the visa offer feels less than welcoming. The clear message, said a few drivers, is: “Come here and work until the day before Christmas, then please leave.”

“When I heard that Boris Johnson had made this offer, I thought, ‘He’s crazy,'” said Mr Balcewicz. “Imagine a 25, 26-year-old truck driver in Poland. He can go to Belgium and earn the same amount. And the work is easier. He is closer to his family. He can drive on the right side of the road. In England, even the steering wheel is in the wrong place.”

The direction of migration, since Brexit and when the pandemic arrived, has largely been in one direction: towards the continent. The number of foreign-born nationals who left Britain as Covid-19 began to rage around the world is roughly estimated at: 1.3 million in a study by the Economic Statistics Center of Excellence. The authors describe this as an ‘unprecedented exodus’.

Many of those departed workers came from countries such as Poland, Romania and Hungary, members of the European Union with lower wages and lower living standards. The restaurant industry is just one of many that has been beset by this outflow of people. It is now not uncommon to find signs warning customers to brace for delays. Diners at a Shake Shack in London are greeted with a sign that reads: “Hey Shack Fam, due to the current staffing challenges in the UK we cannot guarantee our full menu offering and waiting times may be longer than usual.”

The trucking industry has been hit just as hard. The UK government estimates it needs 100,000 additional drivers. This raises the question of why the Ministry of Transport has only made 5,000 temporary visas available. In parliament, politicians from opposition parties say the low figure reflects the ambivalence of the conservative government.

“This is a plaster to fix a broken leg,” said Alistair Carmichael, the spokesman for the Liberal Democrats for the Interior and a Member of Parliament. “The program highlights in many ways the way this government is moving in two directions at once. On the one hand you have traditional conservative politicians who want to do what is good for the economy and business and get drivers out of Europe. On the other hand, you have an ideological right-wing element of the party with an agenda that is much more nationalistic and exclusive, regardless of the economic consequences.”

The shortage of drivers has led some in the trucking industry to predict that the Christmas season will require some unfortunate choices.

“If this problem isn’t fixed soon, people in the supply chain will have to make a decision: do we want to ship essentials like food or luxury items for the holidays?” said Rob Holliman, who oversees 140 trucks as director of two UK truck companies. “We can have milk in the supermarket or Christmas presents in stores. There are not enough truck drivers to have both.”

The reluctance of Polish truck drivers to move to Britain is also a story of how life in Poland has improved over the past decade. Fifteen years ago, when Witold Szulc moved to a town near Manchester, his truck driver salary and quality of life increased significantly, he said. Since 2010, Poland’s economic growth has been strong enough for FTSE Russell, which licenses stock indices, to reclassify the country as a developed market, rather than an emerging market.

As the lot of Poland rose, Mr. Szulc soured over England. The parking spaces and facilities for truck drivers are appalling compared to those in most of Europe, he says. The showers are old and poorly maintained, and the toilets are filthy and smelly, a feeling echoed by many truck drivers, foreign and otherwise. More importantly, he and his wife came up with the idea of ​​raising their four children in Britain.

“We don’t like the lifestyle of British children,” said Mr. ssulc. “They are loud, they behave badly, they don’t seem to respect anyone. And many of them don’t like immigrants like their parents. We imagined our kids would grow up like this, and we said, ‘No.’”

He returned to Poland in 2019, and now he and a friend own and run an organic food store in Lodz.

Mr Skopinski, the driver who chats with friends on WhatsApp, also has plans to return to Poland early next year. His mother is older and he would like to live nearby. Moreover, he has made enough money to leave.

“Right now,” he said, “the only thing I like about England is the finances.”

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