Opinion: Driving (HGVs) home for Christmas
By Annie Dabb
The UK government have authorised the accelerated training of Heavy Goods Vehicle (HGV) drivers and the issuing of emergency 3-month visas so migrants can fill those roles. 5,500 of these visas will also be reserved for poultry workers, ensuring that British families can get their turkey Christmas dinners – so as to “prevent a chaotic” festive season. Without wanting to inadvertently invalidate individuals’ experiences, the stress of Christmas shopping seems to pale in comparison to the chaos of the UK’s immigration system – even with the current UK gas crisis causing Veruca Salts nationwide to stomp their foot, for fear that they won’t get their Amazon delivered Christmas gifts on time.
At this rate, foreign labourers don’t know whether to pack their bags or their lunch. Whether they’re going to be reunited with their families, often tragically separated in the search for employment opportunities, or be able to support them from afar. Perhaps we are eventually entering, as Paul Mason suggested 5 years ago, a post-capitalist era; a result of rising fears of the collapse of corporate energy giants. Although, it is far from the ‘forced destruction of the market from above’ that every Marxist-reading, bespectacled communist student dreams of. Rather, it is a crisis that threatens the household bills of a nation in which 17.4% of its working households are already condemned to a rate of poverty.
Johnson’s offer of visa extensions to migrants as a temporary fix in this “period of adjustment“, as leader of a political party that has previously endorsed a ‘hostile environment’ policy, blatantly demonstrates the hypocrisy of our government. It is, without a doubt, these poor decision-making strategies that have contributed to what Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has described as a “very difficult 18 months”. I imagine it has been even more onerous for UK migrants forced to endure mistreatment, scapegoating, prejudice, and potential deportation. That is until the UK needs a foreign labour force once more, as a result of its own poor governance. Did somebody say Brexit?
Victims of the Tory party’s xenophobic hostility – promulgated by the likes of Theresa May and Priti Patel – are now being appealed to, to propagate UK capitalism. This doubly oppressive exploitation is surely one of the greatest ironies of the government’s plea for foreign workers. In Armando Lanucci’s satirical comedy series VEEP (2012), Dan (played by Reid Scott)’s joke that a border fence would ironically only be affordable with immigrant labour is a bit too close for comfort. One need only switch out electric barbed wire for Amazon conveyor belts.
In almost dystopian fashion, the government’s appeal for foreign labour is for drivers of the same vehicles which so often become hearses for illegal immigrants. Only too often we see news headlines reporting lorries of migrants who have suffocated to death, having reified themselves as contraband in search of better opportunities within the UK’s borders. Hordes of people desire entry into a country which, at any time other than the season of goodwill, is only too willing to enact a policy of animosity towards those whose skilled labour it now so desperately needs.
Another tragic but not altogether unsurprising aspect of the HGV service shortages is that, as usual, it is affecting working-class families who already rely on charities and insufficient government schemes. As a result, food banks are warning of smaller food packages in order to satisfy alarmingly high demand. Nevermind a turkey Christmas dinner, these are families struggling to get tea on the table on a daily basis. It is a clear example of the UK government’s gross inability to prioritise those most in need, as well as its failure to comprehend the financially disproportionate extremities of a class crisis it continues to abet. This is, of course, in conjunction with the £20 cut to universal credit on the 6th of October which Boris Johnson deemed ‘inappropriate’ to stop.
It is a glaringly, painfully obvious continuation of capitalism in the UK. This is an economic system that ensures that big corporations like Amazon can make as much money as possible. You would think that after the year and a half we’ve all had, the last thing on people’s minds would be material gifts. If the pandemic has taught us anything, surely it’s that people ought to appreciate actually being able to sit in the same room as Grandma without coughing and accidentally killing her. Even if Grandma was one of the ones whose ‘leave’ vote has led to our own self-inforced European ostracisation. Christmas is a time for forgiveness after all.
The irony then, of Johnson’s criticism of UK mass immigration to create a “low wage, low skill economy” whilst proposing “three month working visas for European truckers” could not be more acute. Couple this with chancellor Rishi Sunak’s speech at the Tory party conference in Manchester in October, in which he advocated for the reformation of “high skilled visas to attract the best global talent“. Suddenly, the Conservative Party doesn’t seem as ‘transparent’ as Sunak claims it ought to be.
Alongside his defence of the Tory party’s advocation of tax increases, Sunak continued his tirade against foreign labour in his insinuation that Starmer’s Labour Party ‘weren’t serious with their money’. Of course, if the Conservatives were really that serious with their money, surely they could afford more than a 1% pay rise to the NHS. Especially after doctors and nurses saved the lives of so many people during the pandemic, the Prime Minister himself amongst them.
Unfortunately, I fear that Sunak may be either overestimating the judgement of the British population, albeit in favour of the Tory party, or more likely, overhyping the supposed transparency of the British government. How else would the Conservatives still have a majority UK vote, with a leader who in 2017 as the Mayor of London, succeeded in wasting £43 million of the public’s money on a garden bridge that was never built, and left office with four of London’s boroughs in the top 10 of the UK’s poorest boroughs?
Perhaps the best way then to prevent (further) chaos this Christmas doesn’t start with the HGVs or at the poultry farms, but rather with a direct deconstruction of the UK’s hostile immigraton policies. All I want for Christmas? No, not you (sorry Mariah), but instead a ‘humane immigration system’. One which doesn’t ‘scapegoat migrants, nor blame them for economic failures’, but which does have ‘employer sponsorship, work permits’ and ‘visa regulations’ which work “for the many, not the few”.