Liberalisation and social harmonisation have barely gone hand in hand in the transport sector. Some EU rules exist, but without proper enforcement, the current employment situation is often unsatisfactory.
Transport not only connects people and business across Europe and beyond, but is also a workplace for millions of people. These jobs are often burdened by precariousness, social dumping and unsatisfactory working conditions.
There are several factors which have contributed to the current employment situation in the transport sector. One of them is the introduction of competition in transport sectors that were historically state-owned. Conceived as a way to provide better and more efficient transport within the EU internal market, it pushed for lowering prices of transport services. This in consequence put a downward pressure on workers’ wages and working conditions. It brought a rise in non-standard, precarious forms of employment such as bogus self-employment, where workers are asked by their employers to register as independent subcontractors despite being fully dependent on the employer, and zero-hour contracts, where the employer is not obliged to provide minimum working hours. The Covid-19 pandemic further exposed the health and social risks that are linked to precarious forms of employment. Workers are more likely to continue work if they have no alternative source of income.
The lack of convergence in wages, social protection, collective bargaining and labour regulations among EU Member States also contributed to the increase of social dumping across Europe. This has been especially visible in the road transport sector, where many drivers come from Eastern -European countries. Current EU regulations allow road transport companies to operate under certain conditions. There are for example rules on cabotage (the national carriage of goods for hire or reward carried out by non-resident hauliers on a temporary basis in a host Member State), drivers’ work and rest time, compliance with local wages or posting of workers (employees sent by their employers to carry out a service in another EU Member State on a temporary basis). However, due to an insufficient number of inspections, these regulations have not been properly enforced. A more recent phenomenon is the increase in drivers from non-EU countries, who are more at risk of labour abuses.
There are good examples of workplaces with decent working conditions. They are usually in countries with strong social dialogue practices and a high rate of collective bargaining. However, in the reality of the EU internal market, such companies are under pressure from entities that do not follow the same standards.
The emergence of new business models and increasing digitalisation in transport also impact working conditions in the sector. Technology as such can enable better working conditions, give more flexibility to workers and improve occupational health and safety. It can also make transport work more attractive to women, who currently form only a small percentage of transport workers, a situation that also fosters an insufficient consideration of the specific transportation needs of women.
However, digitalisation and automation also may have negative impacts as they can facilitate circumvention of labour laws, which has been the case with platform work, where the workers are engaged through an online platform to provide services such as food delivery or person transport. Due to the ‘invisibility’ of the employer, as the workers are deemed to be independent contractors, and not employees of the online platform, the workers are also unable to enter into a dialogue regarding their working conditions. There is also an emerging question of job relocation to non-EU countries, as possibilities of remotely-controlled operations appear. Another issue concerns the surveillance of workers and the use of algorithms for benchmarking workers’ performance, as already observed in some logistics companies, for example. Lastly, increased digitalisation and automation in transport raise the issue of potential job losses. Although some studies indicate that new, higher-skilled jobs will replace old ones, it will be essential to provide reskilling or upskilling opportunities for the current workers.
In addition to targeting the employment issues that have been persistent for years, it is crucial to deal with the Covid-19 effects on transport with the social dimension in mind. Otherwise, a repetition of the situation after the 2008 crisis can be expected. Although the pandemic increased society’s awareness of the role that transport workers play in supply chains, this appreciation has to be backed by appropriate supportive measures. As a rule, the European and national policies should therefore incorporate the social dimension from the beginning, not as a corrective action – which has typically been the case until now. Priorities include implementing measures aimed at maintaining jobs, ensuring health and safety for the workers, acting against further precarisation in the sector and better enforcement of the existing rules at the European and national level. Finally, a strong social dialogue is also beneficial for ensuring fair working conditions in transport, and it will be even more important during the Covid-19 aftermath.
Sources for data and graphics: Publications Office of the European Union, 10.2832/93598, https://bit.ly/3eztdOb; Eurostat, https://bit.ly/3e6tWGp; Publications Office of the European Union, 10.2832/729667, https://bit.ly/3mBhLUS