Human trafficking and slavery on the road: the ETF demands justice now!

4 May 2021

Following the release of the shocking documentary “Lorry Slaves: Immigrant Exploitation in Lithuania”, the ETF addresses an open letter to Europe’s policy makers on the reality in road transport:

Human trafficking and slavery on the road: the ETF demands justice now!

A recent investigation into appalling working practices and conditions bordering on slavery of third-country drivers in the largest Lithuanian international haulage companies is currently making waves in Europe. According to figures published annually by the European Commission, Lithuania is one of the two top Member States ‘importing’ third-country nationals to work as truck drivers in the EU. In 2019, EC figures indicate 200,000 TCNs working in international road transport within the EU, compared to approximately 150,000 in 2018. 70% of these drivers worked on permits (driver attestations) issued by Poland and Lithuania.

The documentary Lorry Slaves: Immigrant Exploitation in Lithuania shows this is a lucrative scam based on slavery and mass human trafficking.

“They put you in a galley and you paddle and paddle until you croak and that’s it,” says a Russian driver interviewed by investigative journalists who put together this 2-hour long piece of shocking evidence, which we insist you take time to watch in full!

For the ETF, this is nothing new. In the past years, we took every possible opportunity to warn you, Europe’s leaders, about the situation described in the video.

Sadly, this is happening right under your eyes, and barely eight months after adopting a new set of rules meant to solve the dumping situation in road transport.

The evidence presented in the documentary shows no willingness by Lithuanian-based hauliers to comply with these rules, be they new or old. On the contrary, it shows their resilience to continue in a business-as-usual mode, with fraud and slavery making millions for a few key heads of the industry.

We invite you to watch the documentary and take full stock of what we can hand-on-heart call the 3rd wave of social dumping in road transport. This includes shocking evidence on:

  • Unpaid wages, or only partly paid after massive deductions of all sorts of aberrant sanctions applied to drivers by the hauliers
  • Seizing of drivers’ documents such as IDs and passports, as part of blackmailing tactics and pressure when drivers claim their pay
  • Drivers forced to commit crimes, to break the EU legal working and driving time rules
  • Drivers forced to skip mandatory rest and to sleep in their trucks, with employers providing fake hotel invoices to show that weekends were spent outside the cab
  • Drivers being clearly instructed on how to break the law and how to react if found out by police – literal instructions on how to commit a crime
  • Drivers being given clear instructions not to record their work time and register their loading, unloading, refuelling activities as rest or break
  • Drivers beaten and treated like animals when asking for their rights or oppose breaching the law
  • Trade unions boycotted by political power and business – so much for social dialogue in Lithuania!

The documentary also points out unacceptable rates of deaths among 3rd country national drivers, in road accidents, and in parking areas too, while living and resting day after day in scalding hot truck cabins with no air conditioning during last years’ heatwaves.

This shocking footage comes while Europe celebrates adopting a new policy frame on road safety, called ‘vision zero’. This policy sets ambitious targets for curbing road accidents but has no provisions and no commercial road transport and driver fatigue measures. The Lithuanian documentary shows just how much need there is for full recognition of the role of driver fatigue, and drivers’ working conditions, as a core piece of the EU road transport policies and legislation.

Mindful of the above, the ETF will be taking the following course of action:

From today, we will be calling on you, EU policy makers, to discuss evidence in the documentary and to ask for your clear political commitment to:

  • Close the gaps in the EU law dealing with 3rd country drivers
  • Deploy all necessary resources to enforce the full body of law applicable to 3rd country nationals, starting with the Mobility Package
  • Set up a European road transport agency solely focused on cross-border enforcement of the entire legislation applicable to road transport to complement the rather limited ELA mandate and resources in this respect
  • Speed up the application of the lex specialis posting rules in road transport and launch campaigns for full enforcement and control – this cannot solely rely on company inspections
  • Seize the opportunity to revise the EU list of infringements leading to the loss of good repute in road transport, and categorise all breaches to social rules applicable to road transport – including the ban on rest in the vehicle and the driver return home – as major infringements
  • Invest resources in more roadside inspections
  • Enforce the return of vehicle provision

We will be keeping track of and giving visibility to your commitments and responses.

We will be collecting similar evidence from other Member States. We will be organising events gathering EU policy makers, drivers and trade unions to ensure that the voices of our drivers are heard and that you commit to taking effective measures to eliminate these practices of law breaching, fraud, exploitation and social dumping.

Alarmingly, in response to evidence that social dumping is still the norm in road freight transport in Europe, the European Commission has continually answered that the Mobility Package will solve these issues. In March 2021, during social dialogue, when the ETF demanded urgent and full enforcement of the ban on weekend rest in the vehicle and the employers’ obligation to organise the driver’s return home, we were told businesses still need time to adapt!

We can no longer accept the above as an answer! We want clear, coherent and practical steps that effectively address every single problem flagged up in the documentary.

This isn’t just a Lithuanian problem. It’s a European problem.

In this context, the ETF will also ensure that all attacks on the Mobility Package are derailed on the basis of this 2-hour piece of shocking evidence.

With this, we hold Europe’s leaders responsible for what is going on in the road transport sector today, and we are ready to make public their political and policy choices for a better ‘tomorrow’.