The Conference on the Future of Europe needs to hold out a prospect of a single market that works for its mobile workers.
‘Nobody falls in love with a single market,’ the former president of the European Commission Jacques Delors rightly said in 1992. And while the single market has since created many opportunities for workers, the mobile workers who now routinely cross EU member-state boundaries—most notably truck drivers—are increasingly becoming precarious workers.
Many member states exploit the large national differences in wages and purchasing power among them by competing on the lowest standards. More and more employees are thus experiencing a market which offers them neither labour- nor social-law protection.
The Conference on the Future of Europe, launched by the European institutions, has the goal to gather the concrete problems and expectations of citizens and to work out solutions. For trade unions, this is an important opportunity to demand improved working conditions and fair pay for truck drivers on Europe’s roads.
Enthusiasm for the European idea could be positively influenced by a much more dynamic alignment of wages and working conditions. If we however continue at the pace of the last three decades, such an alignment would not occur until after another three had elapsed. This is not acceptable.
People working across borders in Europe must be able quickly to experience an improvement in their everyday working lives. Rather than despairing over the daily struggle against wage depression and exploitation, they could become one of the pillars of Europe’s future. This is especially true for the logistics sector.
Freight transport in Europe continues to be conditioned by the avoidance of agreements and wage dumping. This has not changed even with new EU laws. Eastern-European truck drivers in particular are often on the road for several months all over Europe. They are employed and paid according to the rules of their home country, although never at home.
The country of origin receives taxes and social-security contributions. The wage level constrains truck drivers, who are mainly in western Europe on the move, because living expenses there are much higher: motels or craftsmen’s overnight accommodation are simply unaffordable. Inevitably, drivers camp in their trucks or in Sprinter vans on overcrowded highway rest areas in unacceptable conditions.
The contractors—mostly western-European—profit by taking advantage of the wage gap. They buy transport services cheaply in eastern Europe and thus undermine western-European collective wages. In the medium term, nationwide collective agreements for truck drivers will become ineffective as a result of their evasion.
Already today, German haulage companies are no longer subject to collective-bargaining agreements, because they leave employers´ associations with such commitments. These practices have exacerbated the shortage of skilled workers in logistics—estimated at 80,000 in Germany and 400,000 across the EU.
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For decades, a shortage of drivers has been a permanent feature of this market, where rules are not followed and hardly any controls are in place. ‘Brexit’ has only highlighted a structural problem: the EU internal market does not organise transport of goods efficiently and in a way that makes economic sense. The priority is cheaper rather than better, no matter the distance to be overcome. No wonder there are warnings of a supply-chain collapse.
An instrument of upward convergence would not only offer opportunities for truck drivers but also affect other problematic sectors, such as the platform-based mobility services arranging rides via an app. They too are stuck on a low-wage path and are unattractive for qualified employees.
Since 2017, the German Trade Union Confederation (DGB), together with the German services union ver.di, has been demanding improvements for truck drivers at EU level, in the context of the political discussions on the mobility package. The claims included a change to driving and rest times, posting rules and the digital recording and control of driving times. But reforms were implemented only half-heartedly, as freight transport is excluded from the amended directive on the posting of workers, which strengthened the principle of ‘equal pay for equal work in the same place’ for other sectors.
For this reason, the DGB and its affiliates are putting forward a new approach for debate:
- Unless there are better collectively-bargained arrangements or other regulations, truck drivers in European cross-border traffic must be paid the highest nationally applicable minimum wage in the European logistics industry as soon as they have crossed the border of their home country. The same would apply to expense regulation under tax law. This would be regardless of the destination country of the tour.
- The European driver card will record the crossing of national borders from 2024. The home countries of internationally active drivers should be interested in ensuring that taxes and social-security contributions are paid in line with the highest minimum wage. They should therefore be obliged to evaluate and control the data.
This proposal would simultaneously trigger further positive developments: by making international truck journeys more expensive, a shift to rail in combined transport could be expected—an important contribution to the European Green Deal. Rest areas on the highways would also be relieved, as motels and craftsmen’s accommodation would become affordable.
European employees expect the Conference on the Future of Europe to initiate reforms that will make the single market socially just. One of its most important pillars is well-functioning cross-border logistics. It is in the interest of companies to offer attractive working conditions, to end the shortage of drivers, while member states should be concerned about the erosion of social-security systems through wage dumping. Fair payment for truck drivers is the basic solution.
In the context of the digital and green transformation of the European economy, we need to meet the challenge of building momentum for better pay and working conditions across Europe in many service sectors. This is where the demand for qualified workers is rising, but as long as standards remain so poor it will not be attractive to workers who today earn good money with secure working conditions in industrial production, thanks to high collective-bargaining coverage.
The initiative for upward convergence is therefore also an important building-block for a successful economic transformation.