Photo: Faire Mobilität / Twitter

The dark side of recruiting drivers from far afield. More and more cases are coming to light

Organisations associating representatives of haulage organisations have appealed to EU politicians to support their initiative to improve the working conditions of non-EU drivers. A recent report from the Netherlands has painted a dismal picture of the reality for some drivers from Central Asia. Shippers, transport companies and state services were all implicated in the report.

You can read this article in 16 minutes

Last week, the International Road Transport Union (IRU) and the European Transport Workers’ Federation (ETF) announced a joint declaration in which they committed to cooperate towards improving the working conditions of drivers from 3rd countries driving lorries in the EU. The organisation’s declaration was submitted to the EU Commissioner for Labour and Social Rights.

The joint appeal mainly concerns the promotion of the driving profession in Europe and emphasises the importance of transport for the economy.

At the same time, one of the most important issues included the recruitment and acquisition of non-EU workers for European transport.

In addition to the issues of recognising the qualifications of these drivers, and issuing them certificates, the problems associated with the poor working conditions of truckers recruited from outside Europe was also discussed.

“There is no place for reprehensible practices and terrible working conditions in the European Union,” said Nicolas Schmit, Commissioner for Labour and Social Rights.

This was echoed by Livia Spera, Secretary General of the ETF, who said:

“The key issues highlighted in the declaration, such as salary calculation, violations of social benefits issues, and better law enforcement, are crucial to improving standards in the sector, in the context of deteriorating working conditions.”

Raluca Marian from IRU declared that the organisation condemns all cases of discriminatory practices against drivers from third countries and any violations of their labour rights.

Marian cited the developments last year at the Grafenhausen-West parking area in Germany, where dozens of drivers from the Polish transport group Agmaz & Lukmaz, mostly from Georgia and Uzbekistan, went on strike for several weeks to demand payment of outstanding wages among other things.

Both the IRU and the ETF have created a working group that is to be their common voice on the most pressing issues in the sector, including social and labour issues. Moreover, European and national authorities, as well as leading players in the sector, were called upon to support the initiative of both organisations.

In addition to this, the organisations urged the European Commission and EU Member States to support key issues such as the development of wage calculation tools, a network of parking areas and rest areas, and stricter enforcement of existing regulations (including the Mobility Package).

A growing problem

The IRU/ETF initiative certainly did not come out of the blue.

The aforementioned parking incident in Grafenhausen-West is one of the many examples of violations of the labour rights of non-EU drivers that have come to light.

The problem is so noticeable that in February of this year, the Dutch RTDD foundation published a report on the use of truck drivers from Central Asia driving in the European Union. The report was based on research that took place over a 3-year period.

RTDD aims to improve drivers’ working conditions and help freight forwarders and contractors meet their human rights and due diligence obligations within their supply chains.

The foundation, founded by the Dutch trade union FNV, as well as the international trade unions ITF (transport workers) and IUF (associations of food, agricultural, hotel, restaurant, tobacco and related workers), collected data from thousands of drivers, vehicles and transport companies.

166 truck drivers were interviewed, most of them in parking areas in EU countries. Of these drivers, 82 people came from Kyrgyzstan, 50 from Uzbekistan, 20 from Tajikistan and 14 from Kazakhstan. The vast majority, 135 of them, came to the European Union via Lithuania. In Poland, 21 of them were employed (although it would arguably be more accurate to say ‘contracted’).

The research results present a rather sad picture of the conditions in which drivers from Central Asia work. Although the surveyed group of 166 people is not a very large pool, the issues raised by the surveyed truckers are repeated regularly in interviews.

The driver shortage in Europe would seem to have created an employee market. However, the foundation’s report paints a rather scandalous situation regarding workers’ rights, especially with regard to drivers from geographically distant areas.

As RTDD states in its report, “while the lack of workers would seem to lead to improved working conditions, transport companies have begun to recruit drivers from third countries who often have no choice but to accept degrading conditions.”

The report explicitly calls the situation of many drivers “exploitation” and “forced labour.” They start working with debts, work away from home, for fear of being deprived of the wages they receive according to unclear criteria.

None of the people interviewed knew exactly how much they earned and rarely received a payslip. According to the report, carriers promised wages ranging from €15-€40 a day for the first two months, after which wages would increase to a maximum of €85 a day. Interviews show that in reality wages were even lower, which caused some drivers to have financial problems.

Operation as a business plan

It was common among drivers interviewed to receive an advance payment of their wages, with the rest to be paid upon their return to the country of employment (often after many months on the road).

However, on site, it often turned out that drivers had sums deducted from their pay for reasons that were often unclear to them.

“The responsibility and economic risk of companies is transferred to drivers,” says the RTDD report.

The foundation also claims that breaking and circumventing regulations is so common that it can even be said to be “part of the business model.”

This model assumes, among others, employment in a country where no work is performed, paying minimal advances on an ongoing basis (allowing you to cover minimal living expenses), staying permanently on the road for many months, and finally, receiving a salary minus incomprehensible fees.

As experts write, those employing drivers know perfectly well where it is easiest to obtain a work permit, where the lowest rates are, the most favourable tax systems, and the least onerous inspections.

Mobility Package on paper

According to the RTDD Foundation’s conclusions, EU regulations were frequently violated in relation to drivers from Central Asia – both the provisions of the Mobility Package and the rules on posted workers. One of the basic assumptions of the provisions on posted workers is that these workers receive remuneration in accordance with the place of work.

According to RTDD, this was not the case. Moreover, these drivers could hardly be called posted workers as they spent several months in Western Europe, only occasionally returning to the “base”.

The standard among respondents is to work in countries other than those where they received an EU work permit or to live permanently in the countries to which they were supposedly posted. Of course, with payment of the rates applicable in the country of employment (where some of the respondents had not been at all).

According to the report, the provisions of the Mobility Package regarding the return of vehicles to the base or mandatory rest outside the vehicle are frequently violated. Of the 166 drivers interviewed by the foundation’s representatives in parking lots, only two claimed that they stayed in hotels. The rest regularly slept in the truck cab.

According to the report, most of the drivers surveyed regularly spent nights in their trucks, some even for several months. The authors of the report add that false invoices for hotel stays were occasionally issued in the event of an inspection.

As emphasised in the report, the lack of control and enforcement of existing regulations is one of the main causes of the problem of their frequent violation. The authors cited, for example, stories of drivers driving in Belgium who were encouraged by their employers to illegally spend their weekend rest in their cabin in the neighbouring Netherlands because there is less control there.

A confusing supply chain

The Foundation emphasises that one of the factors facilitating the exploitation of drivers is the structure of transport, specifically orders in the sector.

Shippers hire a logistics or transport company to provide the service, but rarely does this company actually employ drivers. The transport service itself is provided by a subcontractor, and often the subcontractor also has its own subcontractor.

“This creates complex and opaque supply chains that often cross many different jurisdictions,” the report says.

The result of this is a chain of multi-layered cross-border connections that transnational customers often have no idea about, or do not wish to know about.

Far from home

The origin of drivers is also an important factor. The lack of drivers even in countries close to the EU means that employers look for them in distant regions, often much poorer than countries close to the EU.

As a result, drivers who are away from home and do not know the language, who often have to pay for the opportunity to obtain employment in Europe and who start working in the EU with significant debt (counted in thousands of euros), are susceptible to exploitation and violation of their rights.

They are afraid to report to the appropriate services or fight for themselves for fear of deportation, deductions from their salaries or lack of payment, and having to return to the country with no prospects.

Growing interest in Asia

Although drivers from Central Asia constitute only a small percentage of drivers driving in the European Union, from 2021, there has been a significant increase in their number.

This is due to the ongoing problem of driver shortage in the EU, which is “made up” by drivers from outside the EU and the EEA.

The main sources were (and still are) Ukraine, Belarus and Turkey, but employers are increasingly reaching for more geographically distant regions such as India, the Far East or the countries of Central Asia.

This tendency is also visible in Poland. According to data from the Main Inspectorate of Road Transport (GITD), in 2023, 2,430 driver certificates were issued in our country to people from Uzbekistan, 1,116 from Kazakhstan and 1,097 from Kyrgyzstan. Additionally, 1,277 certificates were issued to Filipinos and 1,896 to Indian citizens. In the case of Kazakh citizens, the increase compared to 2022 was 80%. A year earlier it was 68%.

The upward trend continued in the first quarter of 2024. As many as 721 certificates were issued for Uzbeks and 382 for Kazakhs. At this rate, last year’s results will be beaten.

In Lithuania, for example, drivers from Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are in the top five when it comes to issuing driver certificates. The number of truckers from Central Asia will probably increase in the coming years, as the local transport giant Girteka opened recruitment offices in the summer of 2023 in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Poland is a leader in Europe when it comes to issuing certificates for non-EU drivers. According to data cited by RTDD, in 2021, Poland issued 89,900 of them then.while the second Lithuania only 39,900. Latvia, which ranks third, issued only 6,600 such driver certificates for truckers from third countries.

The last decade has seen a dramatic increase in drivers from third countries. While in 2012 there were approximately 44,000 of these drivers on EU roads, in 2022 there were already over 300,000 according to data presented by the Federal Association of Road Transport, Logistics and Economics (BGL). This increase was particularly visible in Poland and Lithuania, i.e. the countries mentioned in the RTDD report.

In Poland, between 2012 and 2022, the number of drivers from outside the EU increased from 4,200 up to 161,000 In Lithuania in 2012 there were only 2,300. drivers from outside the Community, while two years ago there were over 66,000.

On the other hand, as BGL emphasises, in Germany this number has not changed much due to the need to know the language and strict requirements for lorry driver qualifications.

The latest data for Poland (for 2023) indicate that the number of certificates issued has increased to 103,900. The vast majority of them are Ukrainians and Belarusians (approximately 87,000 in total in 2023). The remaining countries sent much fewer drivers to Poland – Uzbekistan (2,400), Georgia (2,300), India (1,900) as well as Moldova and the Philippines (over 1,200) – according to GITD data for 2022.

1,116 certificates were issued for drivers from Kazakhstan (an increase from 618 in 2022). In addition, approximately 1,000 certificates were sent to employees from Kyrgyzstan. Over 3,500 people from other countries also received permission to practise as a driver in Poland.

Coming from the Netherlands, the RTDD Foundation emphasises that in 2021, 300,800 drivers from abroad were sent to work in the country. Of this, over 102,000 of these were from outside the EU.

Of these drivers from third countries, the vast majority were posted from Poland (55,300) and Lithuania (39,300). In addition, 3,300 non-EU drivers were posted from Spain, 1,600 from Portugal and smaller numbers from Germany, Hungary, Belgium and Romania.

Not only the Netherlands

Although the above-mentioned RTDD report was based on interviews with a relatively small research group, this does not mean that the abuses described there are isolated cases.

The aforementioned strike in Grafenhausen attracted widespread attention. The strikers were visited by MEPs, politicians and representatives of trade unions. Ultimately, Asian drivers finally received payment of their outstanding wages amounting to €300,000, which shows the scale of abuse.

This year, a report by the German public television “Das Erste” was also published, which talks about the mass employment of drivers from outside the EU, often by employment agencies in violation of regulations.

The author of the report talks about, among other things, drivers from India paying PLN 4,000 the agency’s euro for the recruitment procedure, or about a Filipino trucker driving around Europe and sleeping in his truck cabin for 8 months.

The problem is not the law, but enforcement

The authors of the RTDD report claim that one of the basic problems is not the lack of appropriate regulations, but the lack of their proper enforcement.

“The reality is that if the relevant laws and regulations already in place before the introduction of the Mobility Package were properly enforced, the current violations would not be a problem,” the report reads.

Andrea Kocsis has a similar appearance, deputy boss of the German trade union Verdi. In her opinion, the lack of mechanisms to control compliance with labour law and the Mobility Package in Germany means that “Germany even invites people to break the regulations” regarding drivers from third countries posted to this country.

According to the authors of the study, the services are poorly organised and poorly informed and do not operate cross-border. The report concludes that, first of all, the effectiveness of the services should be increased, for example by improving their knowledge of international employment models and operational capabilities.

This system not only enables pathology and leads to human tragedies, but honest carriers who comply with the regulations introduced by the Mobility Package lose out. Unfair competition, which, as the report shows, often preys on human harm, lowers the rates with which an entity operating in accordance with the law is unable to compete. Bankruptcies, company closures, and lost jobs are also consequences of abuses of labour rights against migrant workers.