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Exploitation of truck drivers: a problem that’s just getting worse

The coronavirus pandemic caused a huge boom in internet shopping, meaning greater demand for goods to be moved between e-commerce fulfilment centres. The global logistics system found itself under increasing pressure resulting in non-EU truck drivers being exploited.

These are the findings of a report carried out by the International Transport Federation (ITF) and the International Union of Food Workers, as reported in the Guardian.

According to ITF’s general secretary Stephen Cotton: “Long before Covid, the road transport industry in Europe was plagued by exploitation of drivers and human rights abuses.

“The pandemic has exacerbated the abuse.”

During lockdown, a new road haulage business model grew in strength across the trucking industry.

It’s one in which a trucking company registers itself in a lower-wage country within the EU – Lithuania, for example. And then recruits truck drivers from even poorer countries outside of the EU – Ukraine, Sri Lanka or the Philippines, for instance.

These drivers are promised good wages and fast access into the EU, and will pay agents up to €1,000 (£900) to secure these ‘dream’ jobs.

However, the generous salaries fail to materialise and working conditions are often appalling. Some Filipino truck drivers told the ITF they hadn’t been paid at all during the pandemic. Others were earning just 9 cents (8 pence) per km. The unions also found cases of false documentation being given to drivers and companies cheating the tachograph.

This is not the first time the working conditions of truck drivers have drawn outrage from trade unions. In 2018, an expose by Danish social services and the Danish Centre against Human Trafficking revealed the terrible living conditions of truck drivers from overseas, triggering a police investigation.

Men who had been promised ‘free suitable housing’ were found living in container vans, sleeping on foam mattresses and sharing overcrowded toilet facilities.

According to Edwin Atema, a lead investigator from The Dutch Federation of Trade Unions (FNV-VNB) and former truck driver: “Filipino truck drivers told me they’ve worked in Africa and in Saudi Arabia where conditions were also bad but at least they had shower and toilet facilities.”

He continued: “It’s worse here in Europe, where they least expected it.”

EU law requires truck drivers to have proper rest periods away from their vehicle. Yet, the ITF report found drivers from non-EU countries living in their trucks 24/7.

While ‘tramping’ isn’t strictly illegal – plenty of cabs are fitted with a bed – expecting a truck driver to live in their cab for longer than a week is definitely illegal. But this is a rule that is too often being ignored.

Wages are also a problem. Drivers should be paid at least the minimum wages of the countries in which they are working. Anyone who drives a truck for a living knows that the wages can be dire. Non-EU drivers are often paid even less.

This is a situation repeated throughout Europe’s trucking industry. Some countries have more rigorous checks and enforcement of driving rules – France, German and Austria. Others seem happy to turn a blind eye.

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