Jörn Boewe – The Dirty Routine on European Motorways

Underbidding competition dominates long-distance lorry traffic on European roads. Working conditions are inhumane, and the EU initiates only half-hearted countermeasures to alleviate these inequities. To change things for the better, the countervailing power of unions must be strengthened.

Jörn Boewe is a freelance journalist at the Berlin press agency work in progress. He mainly deals with topics around union organising at the workplace as a response to the neo-liberal upheavals in the working world.

A shorter German version of the article was first published in the publication »Equal pay for equal work – on the same motorway« by DGB and Fair Mobility.www.faire-mobilitaet.de

It is a normal Tuesday afternoon at the Michendorf motorway service area on the Berliner Ring, not far from Potsdam: two dozen lorries are parked. That is much less than on weekends when all hell breaks loose. Many drivers are dozing in their cabs. Now, at the end of March, it’s still quite pleasant, in two or three months the cockpit may already turn into an oven.

The cooling unit in one of the trucks starts up with a loud noise. It sits directly behind the driver’s cabin. „How can you sleep with this noise“, I ask. The driver seems to be used to it. Cooling the cargo is more important than anything else.

Michael Wahl from the project »Fair Mobility«, sponsored by the German Trade Union League DGB, walks across the parking lot and takes a look at the front number plates of the semi-trailer lorries. »The front number plates – those of the tractor units – these are the interesting ones«, says Wahl. The tractors have Eastern European plates: from Poland, Belarus, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine. The trailers with the freight, on the other hand, are almost all registered in Germany. Eastern European lorries with Eastern European drivers transport freight for German customers throughout Europe. This combination encapsulates the complete business model of European long-distance lorry traffic.

Michael knocks on a side window. The driver rolls down the window. Michael puts a flyer in his hand. It explains in Polish which rights foreign lorry drivers have in Germany. Both speak in Polish. Grigori, the driver, is Ukrainian and works for a forwarding agency in eastern Poland, in short from the border of his homeland. But he only sees them every two months. Six times a year he is allowed to go home to his family for fourteen days. The waiting times of several hours at the eastern border of the EU naturally counts as „leisure time“. In between, he spends eight weeks driving across Europe, sleeping in the driver’s cabin in parking lots next to the motorway.

Tricky bypassing of minimum wage

Fatigue, no time for breaks and on top of that dismal pay: this is the dirty everyday life of coach and lorry long-distance drivers on Europe’s roads. Most drivers are employed by Eastern European companies and drive for the minimum wage of their nation – usually around 500 euros per month. They are entitled to the German minimum wage when travelling in Germany. But the companies circumvent it by crediting the minimum wage with expense payments that are actually intended for overnight accommodation and meals during the journey. This is not legal, because in the case of illness, disability, or unemployment only the basic wage counts, not the expense payments. But as long as the drivers themselves do not challenge it individually, the companies usually get away using with their »expense model«. In practice, drivers can only enforce their claim to the German minimum wage if they claim it retroactively in court – which is tantamount to losing their job.

Hundreds of thousands of professional drivers are on Europe’s roads for weeks and months under such conditions. Just the fact that so many people accept this systematic exploitation shows how small the chances of fair working conditions at the actual place of work are and how much the drivers depend on these jobs to feed their families. This is confirmed by over 3,000 drivers with whom the Fair Mobility advisory teams have been talking since mid-2017 in German car parks.

»We Romanian truck drivers call ourselves chained dogs because we feel as if we are chained to the lorry«, the weekly newspaper »Die Zeit« in February 2019 quoted a Romanian truck driver. To stay overnight in the »emergency bed« (!) of the truck is »normal« for them, he says. »I have colleagues who spend half a year in their lorry in Germany. My longest tour lasted four months.« In Summer it often gets so hot that you can’t sleep in the cabin. The air conditioning system, if it exists at all, is not allowed to run because it would rund down the batteries. Every visit to toilets at German service stations costs money. If you drive to a parking area for lorries, you can smell the consequences.

Recruiting from the global labour market

Many drivers work up to 15 hours in a shift. Only when unloading do they take a short break. Those who switch off the engine in between and take too many breaks lose their contract. The trucks have GPS and are fully monitored. Not only forwarders from Eastern Europe are by far responsible for this: Western European companies support the system. Either as general contractors they award contracts to Eastern Europe or by setting up their own companies in Eastern Europe in order to exploit the wage gap. These are not infrequently just a letter-box. Because it is becoming increasingly difficult for companies in the Eastern European EU states to find drivers under these poor conditions, they are increasingly recruiting workers from outside the EU: from Belarus, Ukraine or even the Philippines. »A monthly wage of 1,000 euros, zero days off, two years away from the family – these figures are outrageous«, wrote the German Newsmagazine »Der Stern« in a report on truck drivers from the Philippines. In pairs, they had to work, sleep, cook, and live in a driver’s cabin – if you can call that living at all. They had not seen a normal bed in Europe until they came to the attention of the Dutch trade union FNV and the DGB Fair Mobility project.

If the EU is not to lose still more credibility, it must act on this issue. At the moment it is not clear in which direction it will go. Lobbyists from hauliers are pushing for increased »deregulation«, which threatens to further worsen drivers’ working conditions. But the last word has not yet been spoken. We live in the 21st century and it is long overdue to take decisive measures to improve the situation of the weakest among the exploited. And there are tangible and feasible solutions: Making the minimum wage mandatory in the respective countries of deployment, strengthening national control mechanisms, severely sanctioning infringements, enshrining in law the right to return to their place of origin every two weeks. All this is possible. It remains important for more drivers to organise themselves in their trade unions and for trade unions throughout Europe to actively approach drivers and make them an offer: Together we can shape our working conditions for the future.

Grassroot organizing makes some progress

In practice, unionization is extremely difficult in the highly precarious and individualized logistic industry. But it is not impossible, as the experience of the »professional driver circles« (kraftfahrerkreise.de) in Germany, which have been emerging for some time now, proves. Originally a spontaneously self-organised grassroots movement of professional drivers, a good two dozen such regional initiatives now exist, which usually meet quarterly at certain truck stops to discuss topics related to work. It offers mutual help amongst colleagues – in searching for jobs, further education and training, and for all kinds of technical problems. But it’s also an elementary political matter: »We bundle knowledge and inform colleagues about their rights«, Andreas Kernke, a lorry driver and core activist of the movement, reports.

A few years ago, when he was about to set up a drivers circle in the region around Hanover and asked the service trade union ver.di for support, he was initially turned down. Too risky, too elaborate, not promising, the trade union office said. The risks anxiety of getting involved with an autonomous and possibly uncontrollable movement was obvious.

Meanwhile ver.di has learned and supports the truckers circles. »Many of us are trade unionists and are delegates in the regional ver.di department boards«, Kernke says. »But in principle all colleagues are welcome, whether they are union members or not.« Today, the trucker circles have established themselves as interlocutors and focal points for the employees in road transport – perhaps to an extent that the usual trade union approach would never have been able to do.

People call them for advice and discover that many things can be solved by mutual help. Even if the movement is mainly focussed on drivers with German employment contracts, it is not protectionist nor exclusive toward drivers of other nationalities: information for employees from Eastern Europe is offered in Slovenian, Polish, Romanian and other national languages, attempts are made to establish transnational contacts via Facebook groups. »These are colleagues who do a strenuous job to get their families through«, Kernke says. »They’re not our enemies, even though some media portray it that way. Their working conditions have to be adapted upwards, to ours.« This can only be achieved through common solidarity and organisation, the truck drivers are convinced. »It will not be easy and needs time, but I don’t see any other way.«

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