Are the EU’s new road transport rules “modern slavery”?

Professional truck drivers can spend hours on end in their cabins, driving along busy roads in faraway places, or even worse, stuck in clogged-up traffic. But is their work “modern slavery”, as some MEPs claim? The European Parliament voted on reforms to give drivers more rights on April 4, but it has not silenced the critics.

The first reading vote by MEPs came almost two years after driving and rest time proposals were first made in the European Commission’s May 2017 Mobility Package. It covered the posting of workers and cabotage, al aimed at improving both the working conditions for truck drivers and rules that are all too easily broken. MEPs had already voted down a version of the proposals last July, so the measures had to be carefully repackaged after consultations with stakeholders.

Avoiding Systematic Cabotage

The latest Parliament version covers issues like whether labour rules should apply to truck drivers on foreign trips; how many pick-ups and drop-offs a driver can do outside their home country; and driving and rest times.

To help detect when rules are being breached by road hauliers, MEPs want to replace the existing restriction on the number of cabotage operations – transport operations in another EU country following a cross-border delivery. There will be a three-day time limit (down from seven days in the current rules) and new registration of border-crossings through vehicle tachographs. There should be a 60-hour ‘cooling-off period’ for vehicles to be spent in the home-country before heading for another cabotage, to prevent ‘systematic cabotage’. Vehicles have to load or unload once every four weeks in the member state in which the company is registered, MEPs say.

MEPs also want digital technologies to be used to make drivers’ lives easier and reduce road-check times: international transport vehicles will be fitted with an electronic tachograph by 2024, making it much easier for companies to comply with regulations.

Cutting Red Tape

The vote was welcomed by EU Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc, who said, “the reforms are essential in order to improve working conditions, reduce administrative burden and to achieve a genuine level playing field for hauliers.” The Parliament vote now paves the way for inter-institutional negotiations with the EU’s Council of Ministers.

The idea behind the proposals is to cut red tape caused by differing national approaches and ensure fair remuneration for drivers. But there is tension between drivers from the western EU member states – who are paid more and are used to longer rest periods – and those from the newer member states in the east, who are ready to undercut their rivals and stay on the road for longer periods. In January, Belgian drivers’ unions worried about this prospect and blocked traffic on key motorways linking Belgium to France.

MEPs sided with the older member states on key issues, and rejected proposals aimed at increasing the driving time and weakening the ban on resting in cabins at weekends. The European Transport Workers’ Federation (ETF) welcomed the vote, saying it was a stand against exploitation, unfair competition and social dumping.

Nonetheless, Green MEPs have been sarcastic about working conditions on the road, pointing to a European Court of Justice ruling that the cab is not a suitable resting place. “We will fight any form of modern slavery on Europe’s roads in the coming negotiations,” said British Green MEP Keith Taylor.

That might be going too far. But it shows how heated driving debates have become.