Opinion: Third country drivers in road transport: the new wave of social dumping

15 May 2024

The road transport sector in Europe plays a critical role in facilitating commerce and connectivity, supporting supply chains, and serving as the backbone of our economy. However, it hides a troubling reality of exploitation, precarity, human rights abuses and unfair competition.

The latest wave of exploitation in road transport relies on third country nationals: Drivers recruited from non-European countries under questionable arrangements and precarious conditions; as part of a business model where drivers are granted work permits and are employed in a country where they never work.

Despite the vast scope of EU legislation covering road transport, designed to protect workers’ rights and ensure fair competition, drivers from non-EU countries find themselves trapped in a cycle of abuse and mistreatment, for the goal of profit maximization.

Institutional and mainstream discussions surrounding the road transport sector frequently focus on the shortage of professional drivers. However, as a recent ETF study reveals, there is no labor shortage in its strict sense; demand for labor does not surpass the supply of skilled labor. Rather, poor working conditions deter skilled workers from taking the available jobs. High vacancies arise from unattractive working conditions rather than a genuine shortage of skilled labor.

As a solution to the driver shortage, employers are increasingly turning to third country nationals. Lithuania serves as an extreme example of this exploitation, with an estimated 65% of heavy truck and bus drivers being third country nationals. Third country drivers, holding certificates issued by countries like Poland or Lithuania, find themselves working for months across Western Europe. The latest example is the case of Grafenhausen strikes where Uzbek and Georgian drivers employed by a Polish consortium were working in and out of Germany, living exclusively in their trucks.

Abusive practices related to third country nationals are mostly linked to posting, social security fraud, fake posting, letterbox companies, and undeclared work.  Third-country national posted workers are especially vulnerable compared to EU posted workers due to various factors, notably their reliance on the employer for the renewal of work and residence permits, and language barriers. Subcontracting further exacerbates the issue, creating a convoluted patchwork of employment relationships where accountability becomes increasingly difficult.

On the other hand, enforcement of applicable legislation is a serious issue for both third country and EU drivers. The rules in place to protect drivers are not being enforced; an inspection week in February 2023 taking place in Netherlands, Romania, Malta, Denmark, Belgium, Croatia and Austria revealed that out of 436 vehicles checked, 269 infringements were detected. After the Mobility Package entered into force, we have seen that the enforcement of the new rules is seriously lacking across Europe. Infringements of driving and rest time rules are persistent: During an ELA inspection in 2022, in Zeebrugge, 101 out of 153 drivers checked had irregularities with the observance of their weekly rest. This is an extreme and unacceptable rate of infringements per checking.

Policymakers’ response to the driver shortage is unreasonably counterproductive. These include flexibilization of driving and rest time rules, reducing the minimum age for driving trucks and buses, and incentivizing cheap road transport over other modes of transportation.  It is apparent that an urgent reassessment is needed in the institutional approach to prioritize working conditions and protection of drivers.

Addressing the exploitation of third country nationals requires a multifaceted approach. Strengthening enforcement and promoting transparency and accountability in supply chains are the two most essential steps towards preventing abuse and creating fair conditions. At the same time, social issues in road transport are intertwined with the modal shift; internalizing environmental and labor costs by ensuring fair and responsible pricing in road transport will enable the green transition.

Lastly, trade unions play an important role in enforcement of rules and prevention of human rights abuses. Trade unions are best placed to level the playing field, and to combat the inherent structural disadvantages faced by workers. Their assistance in eliminating social dumping practices in the sector is needed, given the low level of law enforcement in one of the best regulated sectors in the EU. Trade unions must be supported by increasing their capacity to reach out to drivers and eliminate labor rights abuses; to expand the scope of collective bargaining, and to ensure the functioning of due diligence mechanisms.

Stefan Thyroke – ETF Chair of Road Transport Section