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The high-pay warehouse party that can’t last

The government is engaging in a continuous anti-foreign agenda, disguised under the slogan "global Britain". No wonder investors are staying away.

Employees select and dispatch items in the huge Amazon ‘fulfilment centre’ warehouse in Peterborough. Photo: Oli Scarff/ Getty Images

Media reports of “golden handshakes” used to mean the article was talking about the City of London, reporting on the welcomes of fat-cat city bankers or FTSE 100 chief executives.

That is no longer the case. In Peterborough, in Cambridgeshire, Amazon – not a company notorious for wonderful treatment of its warehouse workers – is reportedly offering sign-on bonuses of £3,000.

Meanwhile, a recent piece in the Northamptonshire Telegraph listed various golden hellos (or handshakes) being offered to warehouse workers across the region. In Corby, a town where around a quarter of the population was born in EU nations, one recruitment agency, trying to encourage workers to commute up from London, is offering free weekly coach travel to and from Corby, a free hotel (with gym) during the stay, a four-day week, and a £150-a-week bonus for referring a friend.

The newspaper reports recruiters lurking outside rival warehouses, trying to lure staff away with the promise of better pay and conditions elsewhere. Some warehouses report they are now paying order pickers the equivalent of a £28,000-a-year salary – above the UK median wage.

For manual workers, this is clearly no bad thing. After years of stagnant wage growth and job insecurity, the days of being able to walk out of one job and into another the next day are back. Wage growth for workers in some key sectors is stronger than it has been for decades (although overall wage growth across the economy isn’t). And under-valued professions are having their essential role in the modern UK economy recognised.

That isn’t to say the situation is sustainable. British consumers are used to low prices and – given their large mortgages – worried about inflation, which, if long-lasting, would drive up interest rates.

Suppliers, already squeezed on margins by supermarkets and aggressive large retailers, cannot absorb higher wages for long – they will lead to higher prices, which for the majority of workers, squeezes them further. Some form of balance must be found.

Some of this involves employers changing the nature of their jobs, rather than treating their current practices as immutable, somehow set in stone. Warehouses (or agricultural roles) structured their working practices around EU workers, largely men on their own, travelling solely to work and earn for a period of years.

This resulted in sometimes “voluntarily” waiving the 48-hour work week as people didn’t bring their families and dependents and wanted to maximise their working time and their earnings, sometimes in the hope of moving back home to be with their families.

Employers complain locals don’t want those jobs, which is unsurprising but also misses the point. If they want, for example, parents of school-age children to take up those roles, they may need to make some of them part-time and adjust the way they work so they aren’t physically only doable by healthy young men.

These things are in an employer’s power – there is no fixed way any particular job has to be done. Not every job can be adapted to every worker, but we can do far more than employers currently consider.

The new circumstances of Brexit could, in this way, at least eventually deliver a small positive, if it requires companies to consider the ways they work and make them suited, at least partly, more to workers’ needs, rather than their own.

Ending employers’ constant Principal Skinner routine – “Am I out of touch? No, it’s the children who are wrong” – would be a good thing, but it is unlikely to be enough to settle the economy’s wider woes. There are jobs for which EU labour makes a huge amount of sense and UK workers replacing them doesn’t.

Some of these are for cultural reasons – slaughterhouses, for example, need qualified vets to operate. British veterinary graduates almost never want to do these roles: we are a country notoriously sympathetic to animals, and most trained vets want to be working to make animals healthier. As a result, vets from other countries whose cultures are perhaps less sentimental (or in denial) about the food system fill the gap. Pay alone would be unlikely to do that.

Similarly, HGV driving may not be something where British workers can easily fill a gap left by EU workers. Much of the UK’s trade is with the EU, but freight journeys often aren’t just a simple “there and back” enterprise – trips might involve dropping goods across a number of countries, spending much more time in the EU than in the UK.

Given that UK drivers and lorries would potentially need more checks between EU countries than others, they might not be the most appealing choice for cross-border journeys – leaving EU drivers as an easier fix.

Other areas are less clear cut – statistics show there are 26% fewer EU workers in hospitality than there were before Brexit. These are jobs British workers are perfectly capable of doing, but these are generally roles preferred by younger workers, often alongside studies or training. There are only so many Britons that age – deterring EU workers just makes the pool smaller.

The government needs to learn that people need to feel valued in more ways than one. Higher wages help, but when the government makes the payment of them seem grudging, that’s a poor start. When the visas offered to people in these shortage occupations are flagged as “emergency” and kept to a few short months, people get the message.

The government is engaging in an obsessive anti-foreign agenda that can’t be hidden by constantly shouting “global Britain”. It is all but encouraging the British public to be indifferent to desperate people drowning in the Channel.

It is fighting its own backbenchers over help to Hong Kongers – the children of British nationals overseas, and people who served in the armed forces for the UK. And it is making it clear to EU workers, upon whom our economy and NHS relies, that they’re here, at best, on sufferance. The government is, in other words, acting like an abusive partner in a broken relationship – still dependant on its partner but determined to make them miserable the whole time. It is no surprise people are staying the hell away.

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