© James Ferguson

A shortage of truck drivers has led to empty shelves in British supermarkets. There is even talk of the army being called in to help. For those who wanted the UK to remain in the EU, it feels like a moment to say: “We told you so, Brexit was a disaster.” But that misses the point. The empty shelves are a visible message from a workforce that’s usually invisible. They tell a story about what’s gone wrong in this corner of the 21st-century economy — and not just in the UK.

Earlier this year Dominic Harris, who had been a truck driver since 2012, started to feel dizzy and unwell. He went to hospital, where a nurse told him his problem was exhaustion. There are legal limits on driving hours: heavy goods vehicle drivers can usually only drive for nine hours a day (currently 10 because of the shortage).

But that doesn’t mean the shifts are nine hours long. It was typical for Harris, who is 39, to be out of the house for 12 to 15 hours a day. When he got home, he was so tired he would go straight to bed. “I’ve lost quite a few relationships with friends,” he says. “I’ve not been the same old Dom.”

Hours can also be unpredictable. A current job advert from XPO states: “You’ll be working a minimum of 45 hours per week on an ‘any five from seven-day’ shift pattern, so your working days may change each week and could include weekend working. You will also be starting early AM and must be prepared to work through the night.”

In spite of the tough hours and the fact they often pay for their own qualifications (Harris paid £1,500), drivers have been slipping down the wage ladder. In 2010, the median HGV driver in the UK earned 51 per cent more per hour than the median supermarket cashier. By 2020, the premium was only 27 per cent. They have faced a particular pay squeeze in the past five years: median hourly pay for truck drivers has risen 10 per cent since 2015 to £11.80, compared with 16 per cent for all UK employees. “Why would I want to be a truck driver, with all the responsibility, the long, unpredictable hours, if I can go to Aldi and earn £11.30 an hour stacking shelves?” says Tomasz Oryński, a truck driver and journalist based in Scotland, who is planning to move to Finland.