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Solitary HGV on empty UK road.

Low pay, long hours, high pressure: what it’s really like to be an HGV driver

A shortage of lorry drivers in the UK has been blamed for queues at petrol stations and warnings of supermarket shortages. As a result, some companies have reportedly been trying to attract drivers with signing up bonuses and substantial pay rises.

But what is the job really like?

Driving long distances carrying vital supplies may sound appealing to those who like the idea of solitude and being on the move. Yet our recent report highlights serious concerns from drivers about their work.

We analysed hundreds of messages from online discussion forums and interviewed drivers to investigate the reality of life on the road in a HGV.

We often saw discontentment about a lack of work-life balance, long, unpredictable hours and low pay. There were also worries about relationships with management and work pressures.

The apparent shortage of drivers has seemingly done little to provide those who drive HGVs with any power or leverage. Describing the culture in the industry, one person said: “Drivers have their place. They can’t complain, they can’t do anything.”

And many took issue with claims of a shortage in the first place. One explained:

It’s a lie to get more people in so the hourly rate can go lower. It’s a con. If there’s a shortage of drivers, every company would be fighting for drivers [with offers of better pay]. It’s not happening.

Another agreed, saying the situation “forces drivers to compete amongst themselves” because some employers offer such low wages. The implied message was, according to this driver: “If you don’t want to work for this money, we’ll find other people who do.”

Commenting on the competition for work, another admitted:

I’m doing all sorts of strange shifts because if I don’t do it someone else will get my shifts. I’ll go to work and drive even if I feel like I haven’t slept enough.

One participant who agreed there were shortages offered this explanation: “There’s a shortage of drivers because the industry is living in the past. Look at the way people are treated. People are leaving right away.”

The treatment of drivers came up frequently in our study, which revealed displeasure with high levels of surveillance and scrutiny. As well as tachographs, which monitor routes and journey times, many lorries have cameras fitted which film both the exterior of the vehicle and the interior of the driver’s cabin. While these devices can ensure legal driving hours are not exceeded and record accidents on the road, many felt they were used as tools of micro-management.

One explained:

The route is analysed to the nth degree by somebody sitting in an office. Why did you turn left at that junction and why didn’t you go straight on? Why have you done this, why have you gone that way, why were you late getting there?

Another said: “What makes this job miserable is that I feel like I’m always being watched.”

Breakdowns

Others complained that the unpredictable shifts and long hours were incompatible with any kind of work-life balance.

One commented: “We don’t have a social life. Most lorry drivers are the same. They’re either working away all week or they work very long hours during the day so when they get home, they’re too tired to do anything else.”

HGV on a UK motorway.
A heavy load. Islandstock/Alamy Stock Photo

Another said of drivers: “Their marriages are breaking down, their relationships are breaking down. A lot of them don’t see their children or their grandchildren.”

One told us how he was missing out on his childrens’ development, saying:

I don’t go to no parents evenings, I don’t go to no Christmas shows, no plays. I don’t see nothing. I don’t pick the kids up from school.

Concerns around pay were common. As the sector is highly competitive with low profit margins, many workers believed that wages are kept low to reduce overall costs.

One argued that there were plenty of drivers with licences who chose not to work in the sector, saying: “We’re not 50,000 drivers short. We’re actually short of 50,000 people that want to work at minimum wage. They’re just fed up with it.”

While our report reflects personal experiences and perspectives, it also provides an insight into the reality of working in a sector that effects all consumers. While Brexit and COVID-19 may have fuelled the driver shortage, there are deeper underlying problems which need to be addressed.

HGV drivers are a vital part of the economy, and more needs to be done to ensure they are supported. This starts with listening to workers’ experiences and concerns. As one driver remarked: “Government investment in overseeing the health and welfare of the industry itself is non-existent. They don’t take the trouble to go and speak to drivers – nobody does.”

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