East-West tensions reignite as Poland fights labour rules for truckers

Poland is fighting back against a planned Commission proposal to change truck drivers' work conditions when they travel in different EU countries. [Shutterstock]

Poland is putting up a fight over an upcoming EU proposal that will affect working conditions for truck drivers who travel between countries with different social welfare laws and minimum wages.

Top officials from Poland’s infrastructure ministry were in Brussels yesterday (1 March) campaigning to stop the planned legislation before Violeta Bulc, the EU transport chief, announces the changes in May.

“We should think about the improvement of working conditions within legal means that already exist,” Justyna Skrzydło, Poland’s deputy minister for infrastructure, said at a conference organised by the Polish permanent representation in Brussels.

Under current EU cabotage rules, drivers can spend up to seven days in another member state and still be subject to national laws in their home country. But a group of western EU countries have argued that has led to bad working conditions and wages for truck drivers as well as distorted competition from low-paying haulage companies based in the EU’s eastern member states.

Polish truck drivers deliver more freight in other EU countries than drivers from any other member state, according to 2014 data. Most Polish truck drivers abroad work in Germany, France and the UK.

Poland and other Eastern European countries don’t want any new restrictions that could make it harder for workers to spend time in another EU country.

They’re up against a united front. One month ago, eight western EU countries – France, Germany, Italy, Denmark, Austria, Luxembourg, Belgium and Sweden – signed a pact at a Paris meeting to push for EU rules against underpaid jobs for truck drivers. Norway’s transport minister also signed the declaration.

Skrzydło declined to say whether Poland would organise a declaration similar to the Paris pact with other countries that oppose stricter rules on truck drivers’ working conditions when they travel abroad.

“We do not perceive our actions as any kind of response to the French initiative,” she said.

Western member states demand action on low-cost truck drivers

Nine western European countries have called for the introduction of fairer social rules to govern road transport before the sector is opened up to greater liberalisation. This is meant as a warning to Brussels, which is preparing a new set of rules for May. EURACTIV France reports.

The proposal to change how truck drivers work abroad is haunted by an east-west division similar to one that nearly sunk the posting of workers directive last spring.

Eleven countries used ‘yellow cards’, their national parliaments’ rejections, to try to veto the legislation, which regulates workers who are temporarily sent from one member state to another.

But the countries that signalled their disapproval – Denmark, Bulgaria, Hungary, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Poland, Estonia, Romania, Lithuania, Latvia and Slovakia – fell short of a majority opposing the Commission’s proposal. Negotiations over the bill have since then been fraught and slow.

Similar battle lines are being drawn ahead of Bulc’s proposal on temporary work conditions abroad for truck drivers. Ministers are already at each others’ throats.

Skrzydło told reporters the German and French-led calls to clamp down on low-wage workers from eastern EU member states are a scheme to grab votes ahead of elections in the two countries.

“We can actually note some speeded up actions taken by some member states and it’s obvious, you cannot actually treat that irrespectively of the political calendar conducted with the elections in these states,” she said.

The French presidential elections will be held this April and May. Germany’s Bundestag elections are scheduled for September.

The European Commission opened lawsuits against France and Germany last summer after they forced foreign haulage companies to pay truck drivers the local minimum wage while they temporarily drove through the countries. France introduced a new minimum wage of €9.76 per hour that went into effect last July. Germany introduced a minimum wage of €8.50 in 2015.

The French and German transport ministers insisted last month that they will hold their ground against the Commission’s lawsuit.

Poland’s monthly minimum wage was raised in January to 2,000 zlotys, approximately €467. The minimum wage for self-employed workers is 12 zlotys per hour, or €2.80.

Bulc’s proposal should make it harder for any country to use its minimum wage law as a barrier to keep out truck drivers from lower-wage countries, said Jan Nemec from the International Road Transport Union.

“The Commission is the only force standing between this happening and keeping the single market together,” he said.

Poland and other countries that opposed the posting of workers legislation have argued that conditions for truck drivers should not be regulated by the bill. France wants truck drivers to be covered under the posting of workers rules. The Commission agrees.

The executive believes the posting of workers bill “does apply to road transport,” Matthew Baldwin, deputy head of the Commission’s transport policy directorate DG Move, said yesterday.

“We don’t think that it is somehow excluded from the application of the posting of workers directive,” he said.

Bulc said at a European Parliament hearing last month that she and EU Employment Commissioner Marianne Thyssen will clarify in May how the posting of workers legislation will apply specifically to truck drivers.

Commission to tighten labour rules for truck drivers in May

Truck drivers and trade unions have formed an alliance to demand the European Commission close loopholes that let underpaid workers from poorer EU countries deliver goods anywhere in the bloc.

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