Closed borders, traffic jams for miles: during the Coronavirus crisis, key achievements of European integration are being suspended from one day to the other. Meanwhile, the European Commission tries to control national solo actions and to reinstate unhampered intra-European goods transport – at the expense of workers in the transport sector.
Whether between Austria and Hungary, Italy and Austria, Germany and Poland or Poland and Lithuania: since the outbreak of the crisis, many border crossings within the EU have experienced mile-long traffic jams for HGVs and waiting times up to 24 hours, as Member States, in order to slow down the spread of the Coronavirus, have introduced health checks or closed their borders completely. This is added by national exceptions: many Member States have already announced that driving times will be expanded and that resting periods will be reduced at national level. In the meantime, Germany had suggested to relax cabotage rules; however, this has been withdrawn due to the resistance of branch associations.
At the same time, working conditions for “system relevant” HGV drivers were of minor importance: due to closed motorway service stations, such as the lack of access to sanitary facilities, food or even drinking water, working conditions have become almost disastrous. Because of national solo actions regarding driving times and rest periods it even happened that drivers were fined for longer journeys in one country, which, however, was allowed in others. Hence, the Coronavirus crisis acts like a burning lens on the anyway difficult working conditions in an industry, which for decades has struggled with the consequences of wage and social dumping. On 22nd March, Social Democrat MEPs Ismail Ertug and Johan Danielsson urged the Commission and the responsible Ministers in a letter, to take measures against these injustices.
The European Commission responded to the border closures by Member States and published on 23rd March 2020 Guidelines on the implementation of “Green Lanes” along the European Trans-European Transport Network. In doing so, it wants to ensure that goods transport can run smoothly again. Member States shall make sure that waiting times at borders are no longer than 15 minutes. Health checks should be limited to electronically measuring the temperature of drivers, whereby other checks should be kept to a minimum. Driving bans, such as the ban on night-time or weekend driving should be lifted. Instead, drivers should be allowed to spend their regular weekly resting periods of 45 hours in their vehicle for a month. These regulations shall apply to the transport of all goods; hence, they should not be limited to essential transports of goods such as sanitary products or food.
The guidelines’ focus clearly shows that the Commission is first and foremost concerned with the free movement of goods and the security of supply for consumers and that it is willing to suspend social rules such as driving times and rest periods for professional drivers. Instead of obliging Member States to guarantee the supply and care of drivers, in doing so, the working conditions of drivers are further aggravated.
It is therefore no surprise that the European Transport Workers’ Federation criticises the lack of obligations for the protection of drivers, who risk their health to maintain the transport of goods in Europe. It demands that the wellbeing of drivers will be especially protected. Due to the changed opening times and closures of motorway service stations it is of utmost urgency to ensure that drivers have not only shower and toilet facilities but also shopping opportunities to cater for themselves.
The opinion of the Chamber of Labour and Transport and Services Trade Union vida is clear: the Coronavirus crisis must not be a licence for exceeding driving times, and the adherence to resting periods and thereby the recovery phases of drivers must be guaranteed. Apart from that, employers must ensure that drivers get protective clothing if they ask for it. Companies, which receive deliveries or supply goods also have to create fair conditions for drivers, such as access to toilet facilities and catering offers. In addition, a coordinated European solution would be desirable to replace the socio-political patchwork rug, which covers all of Europe.
The current crisis also results in increasingly more voices from some new EU Member States to revise the Mobility Package. This Package includes among other the revision of driving times and rest periods and was among the most controversial dossiers of the past EU legislative period. From the point of view of the Chamber of Labour, the demand for relaxing social law provisions at the expense of professional HGV drivers has to be clearly rejected.