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The person behind the truck driver

Most people talk about truck drivers rather than to them. That’s an error of judgement, says PhD candidate Anke van der Hoeven, who explains why we should be making their lives easier. ‘People just don’t realise it, but they’re an invisible group that keeps the European economy running.’

Science from a camper van

Dozens of lorries are parked off the A4 motorway near Schiphol Airport. A camper van suddenly appears among the juggernauts. It’s October 2019 and the summer holidays are over by now, so what’s a camper van doing here? The driver parks and gets out with her passengers. Together, they roll out a large banner bearing the Leiden University logo across the bonnet. It’s time to get to work.

The driver is Van der Hoeven. Within a little under a year, she will have interviewed 32 truck drivers – 31 men and one woman – in the privacy of the camper van. In interviews ranging from 90 minutes to over three hours, she asks the (mostly foreign) workers about their working conditions and employment situation.

Joaquin Carfagna via Pexels

Into the field

Four years on, Van der Hoeven reflects on that time and discusses the importance of fieldwork. 'My dissertation is about the employment situation of truck drivers working within the EU,' she says.  Their work is subject to many different rules. For example, they are legally required to drive with tachographs installed in their vehicles. A tachograph is a computer that records the exact location and amount of time that the driver spends driving and while stationary. Driving times and rest periods are strictly regulated, and all drivers are aware of the rules and know when they have to take breaks. Having worked for two weeks, drivers are required to leave their vehicles for a period of 45 hours. If they’re away from home at the time, they aren’t allowed to sleep in their cabs – they have to stay in hotels.

The reason for all of this legislation is to improve truck drivers’ working conditions. It prevents them becoming overworked and ensures that they get enough rest. 'It doesn't always work in practice, though,' says Van der Hoeven. 'If a driver has to take a mandatory break but gets stuck in traffic, there’s no way they can take a break.' Moreover, most drivers are either unable or unwilling to leave their cabs during their compulsory 45-hour rest periods. Van der Hoeven: 'They’re afraid that their cargo or fuel will be stolen. Some drivers actually find their own cabs more comfortable than hotels. Others are willing to sleep in hotels, but their employers don’t want to pay for it.'

In short: the very legislation that aims to protect truck drivers is not working in practice. Van der Hoeven continues: 'Talking to the target group that you aim to protect improves the likelihood of acceptance of and compliance with the rules. Simply by going out into the field, I found out what does and doesn’t work in this profession.'

'Truck drivers are the ones who keep the economy going, and yet they’re so often overlooked.'

The common denominator

Van der Hoeven feels that truck drivers have one thing in common: 'they’re all proud of their work’. There’s a good reason why the title of her dissertation is Met de vlam in de pijp door Europa [literally: ‘Crossing Europe with fire in the pipe’]. This expression was first used in a 1970s Dutch song about the life of a truck driver and is now a widely-used Dutch expression meaning 'with full devotion'.

By local standards, truck drivers earn a good salary: 'Most claim to earn much more doing this kind of work back home than, say, taxi drivers or bus drivers.' Van der Hoeven therefore dispels the myth that international truck drivers are typically low-salaried workers.

But the job also brings financial uncertainty. Many Eastern European drivers earn low basic pay supplemented by daily allowances. If a driver is unable to work, they only receive the basic pay.

Van der Hoeven: 'They also have to work a lot of hours ­– 12 hours a day on average.' It’s a lonely existence. 'Being away from family and friends puts a strain on relationships,' she says. Truck drivers also struggle with the stress of complying with all the rules, loading and unloading their cargo on time and coping with delays caused by traffic jams and other problems on the roads.

Ivan Bandura via Unsplash

Local workers turn up their noses

'Truck drivers are the ones who keep the economy going, and yet they’re so often overlooked. All goods that arrive by air, sea or train have to be loaded onto lorries. Truck drivers stock shops and ensure that parcels reach the Netherlands. People really underestimate the importance of this profession, and truck drivers deserve more appreciation. After all, local workers turn their noses up at that kind of work.'

Van der Hoeven believes that, as a token of appreciation, truck drivers’ work should be made easier. She suggests a series of practical and legal measures such as more secure parking spaces for international truck drivers. 'If drivers weren’t so afraid of their vehicles being stolen, they would probably be more willing to sleep in hotels.' Provided there are hotels in convenient locations, as ‘you can’t enter a city centre with a juggernaut’.

Changes need to be made to national insurance schemes and basic pay so that when drivers fall ill or are unable to work for another reason, they’re not just relying on their meagre basic pay to make ends meet.

Van der Hoeven will defend her dissertation on 12 December 2023 at 11.15 in the Academy Building. Her dissertation abstract is available here, and you can follow the livestream of the PhD ceremony here.

Interview: Helena Lysaght
Photo at top of article: Christian Chen via Unsplash

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