Coach drivers sound alarm: hit the brakes!

17 August 2018

Coach drivers sound alarm: hit the brakes!

Foto: Maurits Gemmink

This summer countless holidaymakers will go by coach to their chosen resorts. But the coach drivers who take them have less attractive prospects lying in wait. Just as with freight traffic, the European Union wants to open the gates to drivers from eastern European countries while at the same time extending permitted working hours. But there remains some hope.

- By Rob Janssen

Some of the things that Mark van Tussenbroek has had to put up with are appalling, such as the time a blind drunk passenger fell on to his steering wheel – while Mark was driving! Or the time a Dutch animal transport driver with an 18-metre long combination full of piglets passed him at 130 kph and later, at a parking place, revealed how he had manipulated the tachograph. Then there's the passengers who see him as some kind of psychiatrist and during the journey lay out for him their entire mental experiential world, even asking his advice.

Van Tussenbroek has been driving coaches for twenty-five of his forty-seven years. He has done everything and driven everywhere, from commuting back and forth to the Spanish 'Costas' to taking people to discotheques and festivals, from trips lasting a few days to school transport to European tours for American and Chinese tourists. Now he drives less frequently, busy as he is with his work as international representative on the on the FNV – the Netherlands' major trade union federation – section for coach drivers and chair of Connexxion Tours' works council. Nevertheless, he puts in a great deal of overtime, because in his occupational group the red alert is flashing as the new European Mobility Package approaches decision-making time.

This so-called 'Mobility Package' contains the new European transport legislation and, according to critics, will put the transport sector, including that in the Netherlands, still further under pressure than was already the case. This will be particularly the case for the drivers. Firms from other EU member states, which for the most part will mean eastern Europe, will be able to drive without restriction in the Netherlands without being able to demand the Dutch going rate fixed under the country's collective bargaining system, the CAO. You can guess the results: exploitation for one group, exclusion for the other. On top of that, maximum working time will be extended. For coach drivers this will hit particularly hard, says Van Tussenbroek. “It's irresponsible from the point of view of the driver, the passengers, and other road users,” he argues.

In 2009 the European Commission made an exception to the general rule that drivers could work for no more than six days in succession. This continued to apply to truck drivers, but coach drivers on international journeys would from then onwards be permitted to work for twelve days on the trot. In practice this meant that they could drive for 72 hours a week, with eleven hours of rest per day, a period which twice a week could be shortened to nine. And still, apparently, this isn't enough. As if things weren't demanding enough for the drivers, Brussels now wants these limits to apply to the already heavily pressured domestic passenger vehicles. Van Tussenbroek explains the thinking behind this: “There's a terrible shortage of good coach drivers in the sector,” he says, “as there is of truck drivers in the freight sector. The employers are trying to solve this through changes in the law which will allow drivers to work more days and longer hours. That's irresponsible. The average age of coach drivers is fifty-seven.”

Many people see the coach driver as a kind, friendly and courteous gentleman or lady who is always turned-out, to whom you can turn with any question, and who in a calm and collected manner is able to operate those big air-powered behemoth controls. “That image is accurate,” says Mark van Tussenbroek. “The Dutch full-time driver is as a rule well-trained, has a lot of experience and in these ways stands head and shoulders over most other countries' drivers” he says. From experience, he explains the range of things you must do as a coach driver. “Take a multi-day package tour. You're the driver, the trip leader, mechanic, oracle and even psychiatrist. Seriously, you don't want to know how many people with psychiatric issues want to unburden themselves of their story, because you're a stranger and that makes it a bit easier. In addition, you have to organise everything – down to an extra pillow in a hotel room – you do guided walks around towns, tell people about the culture and history of the places you visit. So you're actually doing two jobs, but you're only paid for one, and not that well, either. Okay, that's the tour operator work, the work abroad as you might say. Commuting back and forth to Spain consists for the most part of dashing about. Often the domestic work is the hardest, when you can easily overdo it. Because in your own country you often drive the whole day through and you've got a sequence of journeys which have to be planned with precision, because the more trips you can plan one after another, the more the firm earns.”

But does the coach driver also receive the appreciation which he or she deserves. No, is Mark van Tussenbroek's blunt reply. “You often notice that the passengers' attitude is one of 'you're only a driver'. Often as well schools act as if you're some kind of slave that should only drive when it suits them. And as for that, I have to say that it's the package tours which are most pleasant, because the people have consciously opted for a bus holiday, so they tend to have respect for the driver. But in general, no, there's very little appreciation.” The same goes when it comes to their wages. “Our highest wage rate, after fifteen years' service, is €2650 per month gross. Not exactly a gravy train. And even if you really put in the hours, working weekends and nights, you'll be lucky to net €2100 to €2200 for a month of two hundred hours. In short, you carry a great deal of responsibility but don't get paid accordingly.”

That responsibility is another point in itself. Not many people know that the biggest double-decker coaches now contain as many as a hundred seats, more than half the capacity of a Boeing 737, the world's favourite passenger aircraft. And if things go wrong, they go wrong big-time. The worst examples of coach crashes on European roads are well-known, as is the kind of speculation that goes along with them, Was the driver going too fast? Was he or she exhausted? “It's a given that if you have people working for too long in the same situation, then the chance of an accident increases,” says Van Tussenbroek. “Every professional driver understands that the amendments to the European Mobility Package could cost lives. It's our task as a union to make the public conscious of that. That lives are going to be put in danger. So we're campaigning around the slogan: 'Is you child really safe on the bus?' That should open the eyes of parents, who'll be asking themselves what's going on. It's harsh, I know. But it has to be. Look, the European Mobility Package was created in the eastern European member states, because they want a clear run for their drivers in the western market. And besides, the IRU, the international passenger transport employers' organisation, really worked hard on this with them.”

For the employers, this seemed in the first instance to be a clear road. That changed in June, when the European Parliament slammed on the brakes. The European Commission would have loved to have given the go-ahead for the whole package to be put into play, but the Parliament sent the package back to the drawing board, on the grounds of unfair competition and safety. “We're happy to see that, certainly. And we've had a great deal of support from other western European countries. We've taken common actions. But we're certainly not there yet. The matter now is to carry it through, lobby even harder in Brussels and communicate more intensively with the public, so that these plans are binned once and for all and Brussels can't degrade us, make us into second-class workers.”

Van Tussenbroek concludes with a telling quip. “In relation to enforcement, Brussels is trying to monitor 30% in Europe, which is to say that almost 30% of all road transport must be monitored. That's a good thing, in my view, because the greater the chance of detection, the fewer the abuses that will take place. But as this same European Union is trying to further liberalise working hours and the rules for employing foreign drivers, then you'll hardly be able to commit any abuses. Because everything will be permitted.”

SP Euro-MP Dennis de Jong adds that “Mark van Tussenbroek's tale shows us how difficult coach drivers have things and that nothing is being done to improve their working conditions. I met Mark during a demonstration in Strasbourg, and it's high time that we in the SP gave this issue more attention, because the market in this sector is very harsh. In the Mobility Package the revision of driving times and rest periods for truck and bus drivers is only one proposal. In addition to that proposal, the Commission wants to exclude drivers from receiving equal wages when they're working in the same place, and further liberalise cabotage. Dutch drivers don't benefit from any of these proposals. The SP European Parliament group won't of course be taking this lying down. We've made sure that the awful proposals from the European Parliament Transport Committee will be brought to a vote again at the plenary. Together with like-minded colleagues on the left, we've put forward amendments guaranteeing equal pay for equal work in the international road transport sector. And the liberalisation of cabotage, which would mean ever-increasing competition in domestic road transport, must be rejected. As well as that, we of course support proposals to restrict unfair competition from low-wage countries. It's important that lorries should return to their home base country after a week. That would put an end, for example, to the sight of eastern European drivers, just over the border in Hazeldonk, waiting for another journey. Drivers must be able to go home without having problems with their employer. And overnighting in their cab on an unguarded car park must be banned. Drivers have in our view the right to secure car parks with clean facilities for eating, sleeping and hygiene.”


The author is a journalist on SP monthly De Tribune, where this article first appeared, in the original Dutch.

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