Just days after the European Union passed new rules on posted workers to fight social abuses in the construction sector, France is back on the attack, this time asking for an update of cabotage rules in road freight. EurActiv France reports.
The European Commission pushes for greater liberalisation of short distance road freight, yet it is complicating the struggle against social dumping in road transport, Paris argues.
French parliamentarians, European transport ministers, representatives of employer organisations, and trade unions met in Paris on 16 April for a conference on the main challenges facing the transport of people and goods.
Organised by the French Secretary of State for Transport, Frédéric Cuvillier, the international conference was a chance for France to cooperate with other EU member states in fighting social dumping.
"We hope that abuses are fully taken into account so that progress can be made," stated the Secretary of State before his Danish, British, Polish and Romanian counterparts during his opening speech.
France's demand on road freight come days only after the European Union agreed updated rules for posted workers, after Paris successfully led a battle to denounce the abuses of European firms employing low-cost labour, mainly from Poland and Romania.
Low cost hauliers
At issue is the partial liberalisation of road transport in 2009, which allows European transporters to deliver goods in another EU country as part of the same journey within seven days of their initial trip - or cabotage.
Through the liberalisation of this practice, the European Commission was hoping to reduce the amount of empty running (vehicles with no merchandise), the costs of transport, traffic and pollution.
However, the misuse of cabotage and the range of wages, social laws and fiscal laws across the EU have resulted in competition between EU member states. It has also led to a 'deadweight' effect where certain companies profit by creating supply chains in countries where the cost of labour is cheaper, such as Poland or Romania.
The temptation of low cost labour has pushed certain French companies to develop "supply chains in Romania or Poland [...] By playing with cabotage rules," explained a report by French senator Éric Boquet. "These drivers spend a month in France and are remunerated under the conditions of their country of origin," he wrote.
Confronted with this liberalisation, damages have been substantial in certain member states, notably France, where transport companies have been hit hard. French concerns are high, especially because the transport market provides a substantial amount of employment. According to the European Commission, the market represented approximately 3 million jobs in 2011, and is the main inland transport mode in the EU.
According to Roberto Parrillo, Road Transport Section President of the European Transport Workers Federation (FET), by increasing competition between European countries in spite of social differences, pressure on wages and social rights has increased.
"In road transport, wages represent 45% of costs. The rest (vehicle maintenance, insurance and fuel) are closely tied." he explained. "Companies accept markets that are below normal prices and then have to attack wages, which are the adjustable variable," he continued.
"Social conditions should be good, but economic activity must also be profitable," emphasised Michael Nielsen, International Road Transport Union's General Delegate to the EU. He claims that without this, "we will have a shortage of drivers in 15 to 20 years".
A persistent problem for freight inspections is that the language used in the drivers' official documents is often not understood by inspectors. "When we inspect a Polish or Slovakian driver in France, we sometimes prefer to let him go," explained the French deputy Gilles Savary, pointing out that "the administration of road transport inspections" is "very unequal between countries."
The UK has found a solution for the problem. "Our inspectors have a simultaneous translation system on their mobile phones so that non-English speaking drivers do not escape inspection," explained Robert Goodwill, British assistant Secretary of State for Transport.
The East disagrees
Although Western Europe and trade unions agree that European legislation is weak, central and western European countries do not share this view.
The Czech Republic believes that there is no need to legislate any further. "We have the means to apply this legislation," stated the Czech Vice-Minister of Transport, Kamil Rudolecký.
A Commission report on the road transport market published on 14 April disagrees with France and emphasises the will of the European executive "to increase the liberalisation of transport markets". Fighting empty running is still the order of the day in Brussels.
To counter social dumping, the Commission calls on member states to "intensify their efforts for a more efficient and homogeneous application of the law."
The disparity of wages between EU member states is also important, but according to the Commission, they are "gradually decreasing". The average wage of a Romanian haulier is now comparable to that of a Spanish haulier - €4 to €5 per hour.
- 8 May: informal meeting of European transport ministers on cabotage in Athens.
- 21-23 May: Annual Summit of European transport ministers in Leipzig, Germany.
- June: Council of Transport ministers in Luxembourg.