You have just placed an ad in the local paper to recruit six new van drivers.
The following day, there are 100 applications, 70 of which come from Polish and Lithuanian men and women.
It’s a situation that more and more van fleet operators are going to face shortly and it’s not just an ethical one.
Ignore this fresh new crop of labour and you could be turning your back on some big savings.
On the plus side, migrant workers are generally willing and keen, will work long hours without complaint and will command lower wages than their British counterparts.
On the minus side, they may not be able to speak good English, they certainly won’t be used to driving on the left hand side of the road – and there is little chance of checking on their backgrounds.
Here we look at both sides of the coin, give advice on how to tackle the situation, and talk to one fleet operator who is reaping rewards by taking the plunge.
Foreign nationals travel to the UK for work and frequently find themselves a driving job – but are they qualified to drive?
Being in possession of a driving licence is no guarantee of driving competence, according to Kevin Isaacson, a trainer with DriveTech (UK).
He said: “In some countries, it is common knowledge that a motorist can buy a driving licence from the government. While it is a legitimate driving licence, the motorists themselves have no real driving experience. Consequently, when driving in the UK, they can quickly find themselves in trouble.”
However, added Mr Isaacson, while checking the validity of a licence outside the country of origin is a near impossibility, asking would-be drivers to undertake a test as soon as possible after starting work, is the easiest way of initially viewing a person’s competence behind the wheel.
With different licence rules applying to European Commission residents, those from the European Economic Area and non-EC residents as well as to the class of vehicle being driven, too many companies assume that an individual is skilled behind the wheel.
Mr Isaacson said: “People from other EC countries are covered by the same rules as British drivers, while rules for drivers from other countries are more complicated. Different rules also apply depending on whether the stay in the UK is temporary or permanent and the types of vehicle being driven.
“It is also vital for employers to at least undertake a visible check of an individual’s driving licence – licence number, country of origin, date of birth, vehicles that they are qualified to drive etc. If the licence is a forgery that could be identified when the foreign driver exchanges the original document for a UK licence.”
As a minimum, to reduce risk, he suggests a foreign licence check with the DVLA to determine whether drivers have previously been identified by the UK authorities. This might highlight a previous motoring offence or a problem in the past with the licence.
He added: “All companies have a duty of care towards all employees from whatever their country of origin. If a person is expected to drive as part of their job then the employer should undertake driving licence checks and ensure all individuals are competent to drive in UK conditions.
“The only way to minimise risk is to encourage each foreign driver to undertake a UK driving licence test, although this may be difficult to mandate under EC legislation.
Giving an employee the keys to a vehicle they have never seen before to drive on the opposite side of the road to which they are used to and, invariably, on much more congested roads is a recipe for disaster – and the company could be found guilty of breaching health and safety rules in the event of a crash.”
Trade unions have joined with vehicle operators in calling for increased information and enforcement in respect of foreign commercial vehicles working in the UK.
They are concerned at the increasing evidence showing that vehicles visiting the UK are in a less roadworthy condition than the past; that the numbers of operating offences by foreign commercial vehicles is increasing, notably drivers’ hours breaches and overloading; and that vehicles are now involved in a disproportionately high number of accidents. But there is a separate issue concerning the number of immigrants arriving in the UK, particularly from Eastern Europe, seeking work that may involve driving.
In a joint submission to the Road Haulage Task Group, the Freight Transport Association and the Road Haulage Association have called for foreign lorries working in the UK to be required to register details of ownership and vehicle records in order to assist the work of UK enforcement authorities.
At present the Vehicle Operator Services Agency (VOSA) and the police have instant access to information regarding UK-based vehicles but little or no information regarding foreign vehicles.
The problem facing employers in recruiting immigrant workers as drivers is how to check that those people have both a legal driving licence and the experience and skills to drive on the UK’s roads.
Although the Department for Transport does not publish statistics detailing the number of road traffic accidents involving vehicles driven by foreign drivers – either visitors or residents – newspaper headlines would indicate a significant rise as the number of immigrant workers arriving in the UK increases.
Meanwhile, a recent check by VOSA inspectors on the A20 in Kent on foreign trucks arriving in the UK revealed that two-thirds of vehicles had mechanical faults and one-third of drivers were in breach of regulations.
An FTA spokesman said: “Anecdotal evidence would suggest that more and more foreign vehicles are involved in serious road accidents. It is for that reason that we want to see a register of vehicles compiled before they arrive in the UK. The database can then be cross-checked each time a vehicle arrives at an entry port.
“Instead we are seeing selective checking. For UK registered vehicles and drivers, there is a vehicle and driver database that can be checked at the flick of a computer switch.
"With regard to foreign workers obtaining driving jobs in the UK we can only appeal to employers to examine the driving credentials of staff. There is no doubt that many of these people have an excellent work ethic, but from a safety viewpoint it is important they have the right driving skills and companies may choose to put them through a training programme.”
At a joint liaison meeting representatives of the United Road Transport Union, the Transport & General Workers’ Union, the FTA and the RHA were agreed in their serious concerns for UK road safety. FTA chief executive Richard Turner said: “The numbers of foreign lorries working in the UK is rising – now something like one in seven of the heaviest vehicles on our roads is from overseas. It is vital that the operating conditions of those vehicles, and the behaviour of their drivers, matches the same high standards which we expect of our home fleet.”
Roger King, chief executive of the Road Haulage Association, said: “It is hardly surprising that lorry drivers and operators are united in their views on the way foreign vehicles work in the UK. The evidence suggests that both the condition of foreign vehicles and the behaviour of foreign drivers could be improved.”
All drivers must comply with British minimum age requirements: generally, these are 17 years for cars and motorcycles, 18 years for medium-sized vehicles and 21 years for large lorries and buses.
European Community/European Economic Area (the latter is all EC countries + Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway).
Other countries (except 14 designated countries, Jersey, and Isle of Man)
However, they may only drive large vehicles which have been registered outside Britain and which they have driven into the country.
To ensure continuous driving entitlement a provisional GB licence must have been obtained and a driving test passed before the 12-month period elapses. Different rules apply for vocational licence holders.
Students who hold EC licences may drive cars and motorcycles in Britain for as long as their licence remains valid, or until age 70.
Students who hold a non-EC licence or an international driving permit may drive in Britain for up to 12 months.
The mass influx of skilled Labour from ‘new’ Europe has led to an unexpected bonus for used van prices, according to experts at EurotaxGlass’s.
While British buyers are turning their backs on the cheaper, tattier vehicles, Eastern European drivers are snapping up these vans in the hunt for a cheap set of wheels.
George Alexander, chief commercial vehicle editor at EurotaxGlass’s, said: “A healthy export market for used trucks has limited the possibility of oversupply, but for used vans, there was never going to be a credible export opportunity that would soak up excess undesirable stock, of which there has been no shortage.
“Thankfully for the motor trade, the government came up with a revolutionary solution.
“Instead of exporting hundreds of thousands of used vans, they imported 100,000s of Eastern European plumbers, builders, electricians and roofers.
“There is now a vast pool of artisan workers needing a cheap set of wheels to allow them to work and this has proved to be the perfect kick-start for sales of older vans.”
Mr Alexander added: “The unprecedented influx of labour has ensured that the used van market has gained an invaluable outlet for vehicles that previously had little value.
“While the negative aspects of mass migration are well-documented, some significant benefits for our industry have been generated by the economic growth of self-employed sectors that require a low-price transport solution.”
Many drivers from other countries could be on the UK’s roads illegally because there is no robust procedure to check the hundreds of varieties of overseas licences, van fleet operators have been warned.
AA Business Services believes with increased international mobility and economic migration, the problem could get worse. An AA spokesman said many fleet managers struggle to identify whether the licences they are presented with are legal documents and call the DVLA or AA International Motoring Services for advice.
There are more than 110 different models of licence across the EU.
Paul Holmes, head of risk management at AA Business Services, said: “This is the tip of a very worrying iceberg as the EU continues to enlarge. If you are a fleet manager, how do you know if the licence you have been provided with is legal?”
People coming to the United Kingdom from outside the EU are not legally required to possess an International Driving Permit, but it is required by some UK insurance companies in order for the policy to be valid.
The permit needs to be obtained from driver’s country of origin, normally prior to arrival in the UK.
Hard-working East European students are recruited annually by a leading salad supplier, but while they might be excellent at planting, harvesting and packing fresh food…can they drive?
It is a risk that family-owned South Lincolnshire company J E Piccaver & Co (JEPCO) is not prepared to take, so all would-be drivers are put through a three-day training course before taking to the wheel of company minibuses.
During the eight-month season – March through to October – up to 150 students from Eastern European countries, both inside and outside the European Commission, will be recruited by JEPCO.
At any one time, at least eight of the students have been trained to drive the company’s six 17-seat minibuses on the 830-hectare farm and within a 36-mile radius of the farm’s accommodation camp.
The company’s student manager Graham Wilkinson said: “No-one is allowed to drive a minibus until they have completed the training course and received a certificate.”
A student’s driving competence is tested during the recruitment stage with the company searching among the Bulgarian, Ukrainian, Polish, Russian, Moldovian and Latvian labour, for example.
Would-be employees should ideally be in possession of an international driving licence, be over 21 years of age and with at least two years driving experience. Additionally, some students’ licences may show that they can drive a small lorry.
Mr Wilkinson, who like all other farm managers has completed a driving programme designed by DriveTech (UK), said: “Back on the farm, I take the students we have identified as potential minibus drivers out to test their ability. If their driving skills are poor they will continue to work on the farm, but they will not be allowed to drive.”
He recalled a few years ago how one Latvian student failed to make the driving grade when he drove over roadside verges and then complained that he found acceleration control difficult.
The student subsequently admitted that his driving licence had been ‘bought’ in his home country.
Students who meet JEPCO’s standards are then put through a one-day UK driving familiarisation course followed by a two-day driving minibus course, during which they will test their skills on roads as diverse as country lanes, motorways and busy town centres under the eye of DriveTech (UK) trainer Kevin Isaacson.
Additionally, Mr Isaacson checks the validity of all driving licences and that could include a cross-reference with the DVLA database. Mr Wilkinson said: “If, at any time, it is thought that any of the students are not competent enough to drive, they are taken off the programme.”
JEPCO began its driver training initiative in 1998 and for the past four years, DriveTech (UK) has delivered the programme.
Mr Wilkinson explained: “The scheme gives us complete peace of mind. While it costs the company money, it is money well spent. We have reduced the number of incidents, mainly dings and scrapes, to virtually zero and the cost of the scheme helps maintain insurance premiums to acceptable levels.
“There is massive responsibility on us as an employer and on the students who we ask to drive for us, particularly when they are ferrying up to 16 colleagues around the farm and in the local area on a day or evening out. We don’t think it is right to put someone in the driving seat without having their ability checked.”
The students, it seems, are grateful to be put through the course. Mr Wilkinson said: “Our employees are coming into an environment which is totally alien to what they have experienced previously in their home country – they are being asked to drive on the opposite side of the road to which they are used to in an unfamiliar vehicle and surrounded by far more traffic.
“No student I have asked to take the programme has refused and when they get a DriveTech (UK) certificate on course completion they are delighted and take it home to show all their friends.”
All the students who were trained in 2005 returned in 2006 and Wilkinson said: “That shows the respect they have for the company and what we ask them to do. I think the minibus driving programme that we have designed reflects on us being seen as a caring employer.”