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A Hard Road For Europe's Truck Drivers, Left Behind By Globalization

Trucks en route on the freeway in Germany
Trucks en route on the freeway in Germany
Thomas Fromm

HOLZKIRCHEN — Holzkirchen-Süd rest stop at 1 p.m., when many drivers stop for lunch. Lawyer Nadia Kluge very slowly approaches a truck, keeps a little distance, and starts a conversation. She explains that she is from the German Trade Union Confederation, works for the "Fair Mobility" counseling center in Munich, and is looking to see if everything is OK.

The truck driver, a gaunt and unshaven man in his 50s, sits in the driver's cab. The window is open, and the two quickly start a conversation. "I go home to Slovenia every Saturday," he says. "It's more difficult for colleagues from Bulgaria, Macedonia, the Ukraine or Romania," he adds. "They drink out of frustration."

In January, police in the central state of Hesse, in Germany, carried out a major operation, checking 1,200 truck drivers. They found that 190 truckers — about 15% — had elevated blood alcohol levels. Since then, many are asking: What does it say about an industry when every sixth driver is found to have consumed alcohol, and some drivers have a blood-alcohol content as high as 0.2, when no drinking is allowed?

"Eastern European drivers always have the highest alcohol levels and make up the clear majority of drunk drivers," says Martin Bulheller from the German Association of Freight Transport Logistics and Disposal (BGL), quoting police reports.

This is not coincidence. The men are on the road for months, away from home, away from family. A life in three to five square meters: Sleeping in a truck, cooking in a truck, for thousands of miles. A life between bed, gas cooker and steering wheel. "Then come the weekends when drivers are not allowed to drive for at least 22 hours, often all weekend," says Bulheller. "You can even call it social isolation."

Highway blues

Kluge moves three or four times a year from the counseling center to rest stops in Bavaria to talk to truck drivers. She distributes leaflets, talks about the minimum wage and health insurance coverage, and hears out the truckers' concerns. "The men are happy when I go talk to them," says the native Bulgarian. "No one else does that. Many people overlook the fact that in every truck there is a human being with his own worries and problems."

When it comes to problems, truck drivers have many. More and more time pressure, more and more stress, loneliness, chronic sleep deprivation, and the eternal question: Where should they park at night? There are so many trucks on the highways that there are not enough rest areas for everyone.


Trucks at rest stop — Photo: Frank Rumpenhorst/ZUMA

Freedom of the road, adventure, desire to travel — all this must have been true a long time ago. In times when every kilometer can be digitally monitored from the headquarters, when truck drivers roll through the industrial areas of the suburbs in desperate search for a place to spend the night, when only those who offer their services cheapest get a freight order, drivers themselves become a commodity.

When it comes to problems, truck drivers have many.

This is the paradox. On the one hand, modern truckers are the ones who make the global economy possible by moving goods between Stockholm and Palermo, between Paris and Warsaw. On the other hand, they themselves are the great losers of this new order. First and foremost: the drivers from Eastern Europe deployed throughout the continent. They cost less, often work for cheap subcontractors, and usually have poor insurance policies.

"If someone gets sick on the road, he has a huge problem," says Kluge. "Sick pay, smart insurance — these are all unresolved problems. If someone has a flu, it usually just drags on."

Drivers suffer low wages and social isolation on the highway, just so prices for tomatoes from Tuscany and mozzarella from Naples, wine from France or furniture from Sweden remain affordable for customers around Europe.

Heavy drinking

Nowadays every rest area is like the one in Holzkirchen, south of Munich: Most trucks have Eastern European characteristics. They come from Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, the Ukraine, Belarus. Kluge knows that. That's why she's here.

"Drivers often work for three months at a time, then drive to their families for three to four weeks," she says. "But they do not go on holiday there: a lot of work waits for them at home. They can forget about relaxing."

Truck driver Nino Malek from Munich somehow still manages to drive home to his girlfriend on the weekend sometimes. But he knows the scene. He tells of drunken truckers who open the door and just fall over. Of binge drinking and mass brawls in parking lots. Of men getting their baseball bats out in a fight and smashing the windowpanes of each other's trucks. And of those who could no longer stand up on a ferry to Sweden.

"They drank and slept for two hours, if that," he explains. "Some of them drink so much that ferry employees have to drive the trucks off the ship because the drivers cannot do it themselves."

Malek knows such situations: "You drive behind one and you think: He is either exhausted or totally drunk." When the compulsory break must be respected at the weekend, it often gets loud in the parking lots — trucker parties with hard stuff. "You often do not get to close your eyes over the weekend, but you also do not dare to go over and argue with them," he says. "That's way too risky."

Trouble on the roadside is one thing. The rising number of fatal accidents is quite another.

Every trucker agrees to a clear ban on alcohol in his contract, explains freight agent Werner Schiller from Oberschleissheim near Munich. The ban applies "even before starting work, the driver should drive off with a blood-alcohol level of zero." But that was the problem last month: The controls in Hesse were carried out just before the end of the Sunday driving ban at 10 p.m. What the police found was a concentrated load of residual alcohol, in some built up over a whole weekend.

Truck drivers often find out at short notice whether they need to travel from Tyrol to Rotterdam, for example. That's how it works in modern logistics. And that's especially where there is an issue with alcohol. "In spontaneous ad-hoc trips, we call our drivers and ask if they want to and can take a trip," says freight agent Schiller. "They are then obliged to tell us whether they have had any alcohol over the last few hours."

Far from home

Alcohol controls such as those in January take place often on German highways. Individual drivers are pulled from the road with their trucks. Their driver's licenses are confiscated. The industry is up in arms for a while. But the problems remain unsolved, because they have much deeper roots.

"We must make homegoing compulsory, as proposed by EU transport ministers, and ensure that the drivers return to their families after four weeks at the latest," says Bulheller from BGL. "It's not nice to see your children grow up from afar. This way we would eliminate much of the drinking that comes out of frustration."

But the question is: Do drivers really want that? "Many do not want to go home after four weeks, because then they will not get any money there," says Kluge. She says that drivers earn between 1,200 and 1,500 euros net a month from their endless trips on European motorways. At home in Bulgaria it would be "a third at most," she says.

The problems remain unsolved, because they have much deeper roots

But not only drivers are skeptical: Criticism of a homegoing rule comes also from a completely different side. "Transport companies from Eastern Europe benefit from this business model," says Bulheller. "But also their clients in Germany benefit from this because cars, food and clothing can never be cheap enough."

In order to improve the lives of truck drivers in Europe, they should not be allowed to spend their weekly rest period of at least 45 hours at the weekend inside trucks. Anyone who does not drive home after days at the wheel on the weekend should get out of the cab and into a hotel room. It may sound good, but it is hardly feasible, because there aren't enough hotels by the highway to meet the need

"Basically it's a good idea to make a hotel reservation obligatory for the weekend," says Kluge. "But first, drivers say that they do not get any money from their employers, and second, where are they supposed to go with their truck? Which hotel has so many parking spaces for trucks?"

And then she asks another interesting question: What are drivers supposed to do all weekend? Sit around in the hotel? Go to the theater? Or to the cinema? It is not that easy. "During the weekend", says Kluge, "they think of their family at home and the work they could be doing in their gardens. Instead, they have to spend their time in some rest area, somewhere in Europe. Far away from home."

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