Outrage triggers political action against exploitation of truck drivers

Inside a truck driver's vehicle

Investigate Europe’s latest project, ‘sweatshops on wheels‘, has exposed the most basic factor in the business model of international transport: increasingly cheaper drivers. Truck drivers are indispensable for societies to function. In spite of that, those who transport goods between Western European countries have wages that are a fraction of the minimum pay in the countries where they work and face conditions that could constitute a road safety risk.

Drivers are recruited from Eastern European countries, but increasingly from poorer countries outside the EU. Poland, Lithuania, Slovenia and Spain are the main gateways to the EU/EEA countries for drivers from Ukraine, the Philippines, Moldova and other countries. According to the EU commission the number of driver attestations issued by EU states rose dramatically from 2016 to 2017, from less than 75,000 to more than 108,000 licences.

The most glaring contrasts between the miserable working conditions of international truck drivers and national standards are to be found in Norway and Denmark. In both countries, the parliamentary opposition has now called for new measures of control, and for the closing of legal loopholes both at home and on the EU level.

“There are some Wild West conditions on Norwegian roads. There is a new group of rolling untouchables. It is sad to see, and we must take action”, says Arne Nævra, member of the Norwegian parliament for SV, the Socialist party. The party has called for three measures to combat social dumping on the road. Nævra believes they have the backing of the full opposition.

“We are deadlocked. Every time we want to do something to solve these problems, the government says that this is to be decided in the EU, and that they are waiting for a new ‘road package’ that can mend the holes in the law”, says Danish parliamentarian Henning Hyllestad of the Red-Green Alliance (Enhedslisten). “But that is just not good enough. We have to do something at home in Denmark”.

Together with the Social Democrats, Danish People’s party (Dansk Folkeparti) and the Socialist People’s party (Socialistisk Folkeparti) he wants to force the government to step-up police checks in Denmark to make sure truck drivers do not drive 21-hours in a row, that nobody is forced to live in awful conditions in slum-like camps, and that truck drivers are not paid too little. Hyllestad’s initiative was submitted as a so-called Urgent request in parliament November 7, and two ministers responded. “The government takes this very seriously”, said Troels Lund Poulsen, minister of employment.

From Denmark to the commissioner

These drivers usually work for months on end between going home. They live in the four square meter cabins in their trucks, although this is not allowed. They have very little control over work and rest times, and they mostly lack access to basic sanitary services and cooking facilities.

This is a “deeply reprehensible” practice, said Danish Ole Christensen, member of the European Parliament from the Social Democrats, to Investigate Europe’s Danish media partner, UgebrevetA4. He will be taking the issue to EU transport commissioner Violeta Bulc.

Police investigates human trafficking

The Danish opposition is demanding measures to close loopholes in EU law, which makes it legal for Danish transport companies to hire drivers from countries outside the EU and let them work under miserable wage and working conditions. This follows the exposure of a Danish truck owner keeping Filipino drivers in slum-like living quarters in southern Denmark, by the 3F magazine. According to the 3F union, these drivers have been earning as little as 2 euros (15 Danish kroner) per hour. During the Urgent request in Parliament, the minister of employment announced a meeting with the 3F union and other parties of the transport sector, to discuss the situation.

The transport company, Kurt Beier AS, has a subsidiary in Poland, where the drivers received their driving permits through legal channels. Twenty-six drivers from the sub-standard dwellings, Filipinos and Sri Lankans, were taken by Danish police for questioning after the exposure. The police are now investigating whether up to 200 drivers are victims of human trafficking.

The Danish case of Filipino truck drivers working under miserable conditions is not unique. The Dutch union FNV has been involved in a parallel case in the Netherlands. The union has asked Europol to take quick and coordinated action in Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Poland to protect victims of human trafficking, reports Investigate Europe’s Wojciech Ciesla.

Transport giant accuses journalists

Investigate Europe has documented that Norway’s state-owned transport giant Bring is hiring truck drivers on Slovak wages through its Slovak subsidiary for international transport, Bring Trucking. The drivers are working exclusively in Scandinavia and other high-cost northern European countries for a wage of approximately 3,5 euros per hour (34 Norwegian kroner), which is a fifth of the Norwegian minimum hourly rate.

A tax-free per diem on top carries no social security with it, but brings the total pay up to broadly half the national wage level. This daily allowance is meant to cover food and other daily costs away from home. But drivers save as much as they can of it to make up for their long absences, mostly eating food they have bought in less costly countries, often inside their trucks. The pay slips come in Slovak, a language few of them understand, and their contract prohibits them from telling others what their salary is. A video filmed in secret by one Romanian driver revealed that Bring Trucking fed drivers correct answers to a road safety test before the actual test.

Investigate Europe’s reporting, along with the magazine of the Truck Owners’ Association highlighted claims from Bring Trucking drivers, supported by wide-spread suspicion in the transport sector at large and within authorities, that Bring Trucking does not pay its drivers the Norwegian minimum wage for cabotage (the transportation of loads between two places in the same country by a transport operator from another country) in Norway.

Bring vehemently rejects this claim and has accused Investigate Europe of “spreading untruths”, “leaving an impression that we are at odds with laws and regulations. This is not correct. We think our well-known brand unjustly has been made a scapegoat in a battle to change European transport business and rules.” In response, Investigate Europe pointed out that allegations of “untruths” without accompanying documentation of what is untrue, is spin.

Outrage towards Bring

As in Denmark, parliamentarians in Norway have taken action.

Øystein Langholm Hansen, a Labour MP, asked the minister for trade and industry, conservative Torbjørn Røe Isaksen, how often wage and working conditions of Bring Trucking have been a topic in meetings between Bring and the government owner. The minister responded that this has been discussed since 2017, and that he has accepted an offer of another briefing in the wake of the media coverage.

The state should not participate in this “negative spiral” on wages and working conditions, says Langholm Hansen. “Some say Bring should be doing it, since otherwise, someone else would. That rings very hollow. It is like saying in front of a house with an open door that I can just as well do a break-in, since someone else will do it if I don’t”.

The Labour MP asked the minister whether he is at all concerned that a state-owned company has a subsidiary in Slovakia with the singular aim of employing low-paid drivers for international haulage. Such deliberations is the responsibility of the board of Bring, but the government expects workers’ rights and labour standards to be respected, said Røe Isaksen. International haulage is an issue for the minister of transportation, he added, and one concern is “not to undermine conditions for the Norwegian transport industry”.

“This is social dumping on an extreme level”, said Audun Lysbakken, leader of SV, the socialist party, of the wage level at Bring Trucking. “The government must take its responsibility seriously and use the state’s ownership as it is meant to be used – namely to show social responsibility. We see the opposite in the case of Eastern European drivers who are underpaid and exploited in Bring Trucking. The company becomes a spearhead for social dumping. That is totally unacceptable”.

Call for three measures

The Socialist party (SV) has called for three measures: A so-called transport register for all international transport, combined transport and cabotage in Norway. “Today we don’t know who is on Norwegian roads, what they do and whether they adhere to cabotage rules”, says MP Arne Nævra. However, this may be easier said than done, according to Jon Georg Dale, the minister of transportation, of the Progress Party (Frp). He points to 2012, when a previous proposal for a transport register was shelved by the former red-green government coalition. The register would have been in breach of the EEA agreement, which is Norway’s contract with the EU, according to the EFTA surveillance authority. “But we share the worry of SV for the conditions in haulage and are therefore looking for other digital solutions to tell when a truck enters and exits the country”, explained Dale.

SV’s second proposal is to create a new system making electronic transport documents (CMRs) compulsory in Norway instead of voluntary, as the government wants. “Today, CMRs can be easily tampered with. This will change that”, says Nævra. Thirdly, SV wants rule changes to enable the lockdown of trucks that are stopped in controls for illegal cabotage and whose owners do not pay fines on the spot.

Meanwhile, the Norwegian Labour inspection agency is taking some new action on its own: they will start reacting in a stricter way towards haulage companies that break rules and regulations, according to a press release. If controls reveal serious breaches of working time rules, if there is no registration of working time – or it is so lacking that it is incomprehensible, or if the driver doesn’t have documentation with him, or if he doesn’t get Norwegian minimum pay for cabotage, it will cost the company, warns the agency.