Transport of goods is the new slave-producing machine in Europe—a powerful tool for social dumping.
The story begins in 2002. In March that year, the European Union introduced certification for non-EU drivers of goods vehicles. At the time there were only a few hundred such drivers from third countries.
The regulation for their attestation recognised that it was ‘impossible to check whether drivers outside the Member State of establishment of the haulier are employed or supplied lawfully’ and that such drivers were ‘sometimes engaged unlawfully and solely for international carriage outside the haulier’s Member State of establishment with an intent to breach the national legislation’. It went on:
Such unlawfully employed drivers often work in precarious conditions and are underpaid, which jeopardises road safety.
Such a systematic breach of national legislation has led to serious distortion of competition between hauliers engaged in such practices and those resorting solely to lawfully employed drivers.
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The authorised bodies find it impossible to control the working conditions of those unlawfully employed drivers.
It however remained impossible to verify whether drivers were actually legally employed. So in 2009, the EU introduced a further regulation on access to the international road-haulage market and driver certification. This required the competent authorities of member states to carry out annual checks on at least 20 per cent of driver certificates they issued.
By the end of 2012, among the 27 member states there were 44,316 driver certificates from third countries in circulation. Spain had most, with 10,599. Within nine years, the total had soared to 277,159. Whereas in 2012 Poland had 4,221 and Lithuania 2,277, by 2021 these two countries alone accounted for 77 per cent of all certificates. Lithuania, a small country of 2.7 million inhabitants, has just over 20,000 Lithuanian drivers but, officially, 80,000 non-EU drivers.
The problem is that these driver do not work in Poland or Lithuania, where the certificate was issued, but in one of the 25 other member states—under indecent wage and social conditions. To see how artificial are the data, Belgium, at the heart of Europe’s transport network, has about 40,000 Belgian drivers and only 340 are registered as non-EU. Or suppose that France were to match Lithuania: there would be 359,000 French drivers and 1.3 million non-EU drivers—in reality 272 are attested.
In December 2021, Belgium presented a note to a meeting of EU transport ministers expressing concern about the ‘explosive increase’ in the number of drivers from third countries. It blamed ‘a deliberate strategy from large logistics groups in a few Member States’, aiming to ‘keep labor costs as low as possible, in order to gain competitiveness vis-à-vis the rest of the EU operators’. These concerns were echoed by Denmark at a transport council the following June.
An academic study has corroborated what various pieces of investigative journalism have shown. Of 1,027 drivers interviewed for the research, mainly Belarusian and Ukrainian, most worked exclusively in western Europe rather than in the country of establishment of their employer (Lithuania or Poland). Thirty-five per cent said their employer provided falsified documents and half did not receive a salary slip.
These are real slaves. After a few months of work, an employer can threaten not to pay them wages owed. Since the certificate is the property of the company, the latter can terminate it whenever it wants. This is a continuous threat to the worker.
With an increase of some 20 per cent in certificates each year, the number of non-European drivers exploited like slaves is expected to reach one million by 2030. This will have disastrous socio-economic consequences for the sector.
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At the European level, we propose to limit the number of non-EU drivers to 5 per cent of national drivers. If a country had 300,000 drivers, only 15,000 certificates could thus be in circulation. Such a ceiling would prevent the number of non-EU drivers being artificially inflated by hauliers nominally registered in the member state for social dumping elsewhere.
Three decades on from the launch of the single market, if we don’t want it to become an unfair market, measures must be taken urgently.
Roberto Parillo is general manager of the road-transport and logistics sector of ACV-CSC Transcom in Belgium and president of the road-transport sector of the European Transport Workers' Federation (ETF).