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Empty shelves—nothing super about the market

This article is over 2 years, 8 months old
With shelves staying bare and shortages predicted to get worse, Sophie Squire looks at what’s behind the crisis and pins the blame on production for profit
Issue 2766
Supermarkets across Britain yet again have empty shelves
Supermarkets across Britain yet again have empty shelves

For the second time during the pandemic, a trip down to the supermarket could leave you frustrated, unable to buy many of the basics.

Behind your frustration lie “just in time” methods of production and distribution, designed to maximise the bosses’ profits.

Under this system, firms don’t hold big stocks and only take ­deliveries of things they immediately need. Supermarket bosses, for example, only fill their shops with what they expect to sell right away.

This means that even a relatively small spike in demand can leave ­supermarkets unable to restock their shelves quickly enough. It’s what happened at the beginning of thepandemic as the Tories brought in lockdown measures for the first time.

And similarly, even a relatively small decline in supply can cause chaos.

So it’s little wonder that a ­shortage of 100,000 heavy good vehicle (HGV) drivers—who are an essential part of supply chains across Britain—has caused a nasty shock.


Things are so bad, Tesco announced this week it would offer a £1,000 bonus to drivers.

Coronavirus and a right wing ­version of Brexit—both made worse by the Tory government—have helped the shortage.

A rise in Covid cases is forcing workers in all sectors to ­self­‑isolate, including many lorry drivers.

The government’s solution is to allow 10,000 food haulage drivers to forgo self-isolation and work if they’ve had two doses of the vaccine.

And logistics bosses say the ­­pandemic has resulted in the loss of around 12 months of driver training and testing. Compared with 2019, 43 percent fewer tests were conducted in 2020.

Meanwhile, up to 15,000 European haulage workers have left Britain in the last year amid the Tories’ clampdown on migrants.

From January, migrants needed 70 “points” to come and work in Britain under the Tories’ new immigration rules.

Migrants can find a job on the Home Office Shortage Occupation List to make up these points.

‘Just in time’ production for profit to blame for empty supermarket shelves
‘Just in time’ production for profit to blame for empty supermarket shelves
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And when applying for jobs on this list, they don’t need to prove they’ll have a starting salary of at least £25,600 a year when they come to Britain. HGV drivers are not on this list. If just-in-time methods of production and distribution are so vulnerable to shocks, why do firms rely on them?

A big reason is slashing the cost of storing stuff at warehouses.

But there’s also a deeper reason. Under capitalism, bosses have to constantly maximise efficiency to stay ahead of competitors.

They invest money into ­production in order to make a profit—and the sooner the commodity is sold, the sooner that potential profit is realised. The point of just-in-time, according to one of its supporters, is to “make value flow without interruptions”.

The alternative to this market chaos is a democratically planned economy for social need, not profit.

And workers have the power to fight against the chaos.

The just-in-time system is ­vulnerable—but not just to ­fluctuations in demand and supply.It gives distribution workers immense power to bring whole ­sectors of capitalism grinding to a halt.

The truth behind why workers are really leaving

Terrible conditions, long hours, poor pay and lack of facilities are all factors as to why workers are leaving the industry.

Even before the pandemic began there was already a shortage of around 60,000 HGV drivers.

This has prompted thousands of haulage workers to plan to strike on 23 August over pay and conditions.

One Lorry driver told the Guardian newspaper, “For far too many years we have been ignored, exploited and taken for granted.

“Now our time has come, now we have a window of opportunity to be listened to.”

Lorry drivers have been put increasingly under pressure after a decade of worker shortages, driven by an inability to recruit or retain workers. The Road Haulage Association found that the average age of an HGV driver is 55. It also found that less than one percent of drivers are under the age of 25.

‘It’s profit over health always’—workers forced into unsafe workplaces speak out
‘It’s profit over health always’—workers speak out
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Part of the reason for this is that many companies refuse to take on those under 25 because insurance is more expensive.

There are also barriers to becoming an HGV driver in the first place, with training and getting a license costing upwards of £5,000.

Lack of essential facilities is also prompting many to leave the industry. At times during the height of lockdown drivers were unable to access toilets or showers while on the road.

The result, according to Roadsters’ magazine, is there are an estimated 80,000 trained HGV workers currently working in different professions.

In the pursuit of profit, many logistics bosses have kept wages down and done little to improve conditions for workers.

What this current crisis shows is that a distribution system run with no thought for its workers causes chaos.

It also shows just how important one section of workers can be in keeping not only supply chains going, but the whole system running.

Gambling with driver safety

So serious is the shortage of HGV drivers that the Tories have written to the logistics sector asking for their support for plans to lift regulations and get more workers into the industry.

But this letter makes it clear the Tories will put the bosses’ profits first and driver safety second.

It calls for more drivers to pass the HGV drivers’ test by taking one test, not two.

It also said that extra tests for drivers to be able to drive car, van and trailer combinations should be scrapped.

Becky Needham from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents said, “Our view is that the test, as it stands, protects the drivers themselves, other road users and the public.

We would not want to have their safety compromised in any way by this proposal.”

Tory transport minister Grant Shapps also confirmed that there will be a temporary relaxation on how many hours lorry drivers can work, from nine hours to 10 hours a day.

HGV drivers purposefully have strict rules about how many hours they are allowed to drive and be on duty to avoid fatal consequences.

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