Decent work in transport must become the new norm


What do most countries in Europe have in common at the moment? Strike action. Transport workers are fed up with poor working conditions; they just want decent work, and they’re making their voices heard.

All over Europe, we’re seeing an uprising of transport workers – they’ve had enough of the lack of respect for their work, the poor working conditions, and now on top of it all, a cost of living crisis that leaves no breathing space.

In several sectors, the salaries of transport workers are notoriously low. This is despite the fact that transport workers are responsible for moving Europe – its people and its goods.

Now Europe is witnessing the outrage of transport workers. These are workers that just want to be able to do their jobs under decent conditions with fair pay.

And the industry is feeling its effects; there is a shortage of workers in the transport industry caused directly by the lack of decent work. The current workforce is starting to leave.

The European Labour Authority’s November 2021 Report on Labour Shortages and Surpluses indicates the shortage of truck and lorry drivers as the fifth most widespread labour shortage in Europe, with shortfalls reported in at least 16 EU member states. Reports from Transport Intelligence estimate that Europe’s freight market is short of more than 400,000 drivers.

Furthermore, data from Oxford Economics shows that over 2.3 million workersin the aviation industry were laid off globally during the Covid-19 pandemic. Currently, in France, Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports have a total of 4,000 vacancies. Yet, there is not much interest in aviation jobs. At least, not anymore.

It’s estimated that Austria will need over 3,000 new rail workers per year, as one-quarter of staff working for ÖBB (the Austrian national railway company) will retire up to 2027. In Belgium, reports show a shortage of 4,000 workers in passenger rail.

Deteriorating conditions

We find ourselves in a situation where we have an industry with an ageing workforce and almost no one to take over once they leave. Young people simply do not want to work in an industry that cannot offer decent working conditions.

With the industry continuing down this road, the effects will devastate everyday lives. Everyone relies on a transport worker whether they are aware of it or not: from the clothes we wear to the food we eat to our daily commute.

Could this have been avoided? Didn’t anyone see it coming?

We did. The European Transport Workers’ Federation (ETF) has reached out to policymakers and engaged with them over the deteriorating conditions in transport. We have always asked that transport workers be considered and unions consulted when developing transport related policies.

Unfortunately, reality shows that most policies do not operate under the motto: “People first”, but rather “Profits first, forget people”.

By ignoring the voices of transport workers, Europe’s leaders – and their poor political decisions – are the ones implicitly responsible for the current state of the transport industry.

If we look at what years of liberalisation in transport services has brought us, we clearly see a profit-driven industry that continuously cuts costs on the backs of its workers, with companies competing over who can provide a workforce at the lowest price.

The people of Europe can feel the negative impact on our daily lives reflected in transport services.

In rail transport, we see that services are cut, and train stations are hollow and empty, with fewer people at the counters and more machines. Deserted stations threaten the security of workers and passengers, as well as the overall accessibility of train stations to all.

Also affecting accessibility is the dwindling number of trains running from secluded areas where people heavily rely on rail transport, creating transport poverty.
Spread over all sectors, profit-focused policies have only led to a transport industry defined by poor wages and poor working conditions, as the skyrocketing profits of companies mean that transport workers are the ones paying the price.

Making sure the voices of transport workers are heard

At the end of the day, it is the lack of decent work that is causing the shortage of transport workers. But transport workers are speaking up and becoming louder and more visible. Europe can no longer ignore the poor working conditions running amok in the transport industry.

Strike action will continue to hit Europe. Headlines of rail workers walking out, bus and truck drivers pulling up their metaphorical brakes, and delayed and cancelled flights will continue. It’s not over.

And it won’t be over until decent work becomes the norm in the transport industry. This requires fundamental changes across the sector.

As the voice of over five million transport workers in Europe, the ETF is making sure their voices are being heard.

We’ll keep calling on Europe’s leaders to directly address the deep roots of the transport crisis and start listening to transport workers. The time has come for EU leaders to fundamentally change the way the sector works, and this has to start by putting people over profits.

Still, no fight can be won just by staying in one’s corner. We call on our transport workers to continue demanding improved working conditions and fair pay.

But these fights are not individual fights. Europe’s transport workers can rest assured that the ETF is bringing their demands to the leaders of Europe in Brussels. That is the beauty of the international union movement: no one fights alone – we all fight together.

In March 2019, the ETF, alongside thousands of transport workers, marched the streets of Brussels for ‘Fair Transport’: quality jobs for transport workers and safe, reliable transport services for people.

If needed, we are ready to do it again, as one thing is certain: the ETF will not rest until decent work becomes the norm in transport.