Temse, an industrial area in Belgium, near the Dutch border, is home to the warehouses of several transport firms.
The parking area of Gilbert De Clercq, one of Belgium’s biggest haulage firms, resembles a camping ground, only without the bucolic charm.
Dozens of heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) registered in Belgium and Slovakia are parked there.
As one vehicle heads out to stock up on provisions at the local supermarket, drivers lay out their laundry to dry on the hoods of their trucks. Others have installed satellite dishes so that they can watch television.
A space has been set up inside De Clercq’s offices with shower, cooking and laundry facilities. A Bulgarian news programme is playing on a screen.
Emil (whose name has been changed to protect his identity), a Bulgarian driver aged around 50, is making the most of his day off.
Emil has been working for the company for eight years. He was hired in Bulgaria, but on a Slovakian contract.
He usually works 15 weeks in a row, driving across Belgium, France and the Netherlands, then goes back home for five weeks, in a minibus chartered by his employer. Throughout the time he is working, he sleeps in the cab of his truck, on a narrow makeshift bed behind the seats.
The conditions are tough, but he seems willing to put up with them. “There’s no work for me in Bulgaria, and I have to pay for my children’s studies.”
His gross pay is €500 a month, plus around €50 a day in expenses. His total monthly income can total as much as €1,600.
The next day, Emil will be back on the road. His task is to transport goods from the IKEA warehouses in Genk (Belgium) to several of the Swedish furnishing giant’s stores in the Netherlands.
“Such conditions are unacceptable – we are dealing with modern-day slavery,” says Daniel Maratta, provincial secretary of the Liege-Namur-Luxembourg region of the Belgian transport union UBT-FGTB.
The union ran various campaigns and even staged actions in front of IKEA stores to draw customers’ attention to the situation.
“In Belgium, drivers are paid €11.34 an hour. It costs the employer €5000 in total, including social contributions. If you compare with the conditions in Slovakia, where employers pay very little in terms of social contributions, it means that customers such as IKEA benefit from considerably cheaper transport services.
“The result is total deregulation in the sector. There have been an estimated 5000 job losses in the road transport sector in Belgium since 2008.”
An online video posted by the UBT-FGTB and the Dutch trade union centre FNV explains how the system works.
When contacted by Equal Times, the management at IKEA denied any breach of the law.
“We conduct regular checks of our transport providers and have not found any irregularities,” stated a press officer at the company.
“Our strict IWAY code of conduct, guaranteeing decent pay and working conditions, applies to all our suppliers.”
But Maratta disagrees. “It is a clear breach of the cabotage rules. The workers come to Belgium in vans and pick up their trucks here!”
Bratislava has become a key location in the transport business. A front company can be opened there for a monthly rent of less than €100.
“They are no more than dummy companies,” says Tom Peeters of the UBT-FGTB.
“We have been there to investigate and saw that the subsidiaries of companies such as De Clercq are completely fictitious. They do not even have parking areas for their fleets. The impact is not only disastrous in terms of working conditions but also for fiscal revenues in Belgium or the Netherlands.”
A list of 85 transport firms reported to have ‘dummy companies’ in Eastern Europe has been submitted to the Belgian Secretary of State for Combatting Social and Fiscal Fraud, John Crombez.
The companies implicated reportedly work for firms such as Danone, Decathlon and Delhaize.
According to Andries Vienne, an advisor at the ministry: “Checks will be conducted at companies concerned. An employee working in Belgium must be paid in line with the Belgian minimum [wage], as anything less would be illegal.”
A European directive concerning the status of posted workers states that such employees must benefit from the working conditions of the member state where the work is conducted.
A number of convictions have already been made in Europe in this respect. In 2011, a French company was found guilty of similar offences.
Equally serious are reports that transport companies have no qualms about hiring Belgian workers, in Belgium, under Slovakian conditions.
Equal Times has obtained a copy of an employment contract offered to an unemployed Belgian driver. It sets down gross pay of just €500 a month, far below the minimum of €1700 guaranteed by the joint committee for the sector in Belgium.
“We receive reports like these on a regularly basis,” says Maratta.
“The employer advises them to hold on to their unemployment benefits and pays them a daily allowance of €150, cash in hand. The workers contribute nothing towards their pensions, risk heavy administrative penalties, and you can imagine the repercussions if there is an accident. The consequences are potentially drastic and the worker could end up in prison.”
The tragic consequences of social dumping have already been seen in Belgium. In April 2012, in Wingene, two Polish truck drivers who often spent the night in their employer’s warehouse lost their lives in a fire.
This article has been translated from French.