Truckers’ bread has long depended on a lot of sweat and increasingly strained accounts. The escalation of diesel – which has doubled its price since 2016 and has skyrocketed in the last three months – has finished breaking its fragile economies. Leopoldo Barquero, 45, enthusiastically inherited the Movelana Aggregates and Concrete company a decade ago with nine trucks in Guillena (Seville), but now he only repeats that the numbers do not work out for him. When he looks back to compare himself with his father Leopoldo, 75 years old, the aftertaste is bitter: “20 years ago the salary of a truck was the same, but with 60% less expenses.” Globalization, digitization and the entry of companies like Amazon have turned his life into a jungle full of intermediaries. Carriers are the big losers.
The rise in diesel has upset the tight accounts, but it has also revealed a backpack of wounds accumulated over decades and that have deteriorated an already tough profession: with endless days behind the wheel and away from home, stressed to meet a tight deadline , often behind the wheel at dawn, sleeping in the cabin of the truck, which is only left to sleep in service areas often with poor hygiene and without showers. A lonely routine with family life reduced to weekends.
What has happened so that the narrow margin of carriers blows up? Twelve days ago, many of these drivers went on strike, supported by the Platform in Defense of the Transport Sector, outraged by the rise in fuel prices, which has been the straw that breaks the camel’s back. When they do the math at the end of the month, the self-employed are suffocated by the payments: to the fuel shot they must add the bill to pay for the truck —whose cost is around 200,000 euros—, the vehicle insurance, the AdBlue additive (which reduces pollution) , tire replacements, maintenance, taxes, repairs, allowances and tolls.
The leader of the strike, Manuel Hernández, and his followers have repeated these weeks the need to restore dignity to the profession, appealing to that past time in which they lived better. “Transportation has never been good, but we have never known what we are experiencing today,” this second-generation trucker from Albacete said in his first video nine months ago. “That lack of respect that everyone has for us, those imposed prices that there is no way to raise them anywhere and right away they are telling you ‘this is what it is”.
The deterioration of working conditions has deep roots. Carriers are big losers from the transformations that globalization and digitization have brought. They blame the authorities for not having done enough to protect their rights and living conditions.
He knows in depth all the sides of the coin.
This fall in prices has occurred throughout Europe and is a consequence of liberalization in the common market in the 1990s, according to a study commissioned by the European Parliament in 2013. The report concluded that the increase in competition brought about by the community reforms led to a worsening of working conditions and wages. The trend was accentuated after the EU enlargements in 2004 and 2007. Liberalization generalized the cabotage right. In other words, when carriers from another Member State were in Spain on an international trip, they could carry out one or more transports in our country instead of returning empty to their country of origin.
In parallel, the study described irregular practices that spread, such as the mailbox companies, who are domiciled in States with less demanding labor and tax regulations, even if they do not carry out their work in that country. Finally, many companies got rid of their workforce of salaried truck drivers to turn to bogus self-employment in order to save costs. All these factors have been adding droplets to the glass of the deterioration of the profession.
To these problems has been added the last decade the uberization of freight transport as a consequence of phone apps where truckers they can hunt on the wing offers. They are markets where the carrier clicks on offers that have sometimes been resold multiple times by intermediaries who live off the commissions for these operations, confirm various sources in the sector.
This explains why if a factory pays 1,000 euros for a freight to take a freight from a city A to a city B, the carrier sometimes receives less than half of that money. While he spends his days on the road, another makes a killing without leaving an office. One of these operators, who requires anonymity, explains that he at least asks for a benevolent commission: “I’m around 8% margin and 30% is a savage. When all this started, the operators told the customers ‘wait until Friday, I’ll get it for you cheaper’, playing on the desperation of the self-employed”. On the 180-day payment suffered by the self-employed, this businessman reflects: “They are creatures who do not have to act as a banker. The fault lies with the first one who accepted a bill of exchange in the transport”.
The intermediary has always been a controversial figure in the world of transport. Decades ago, they were people who made a living by going around the estate, writing down the offers of portage. Then they would spend the day at the bar, waiting for the truckers to arrive. These were officially called freight brokers, but were contemptuously known to truckers as sausagesbecause they charged a commission for that work.
Due to the very nature of this world, the carrier became chorizo (or travel agency) in a natural way: if an entrepreneur has all his trucks on the road and receives a call from a factory that needs an urgent shipment, he usually subcontracts that trip to a third party charging a commission so as not to miss the opportunity to make box In this way, it is normal for large transport companies to combine their main work with intermediation. In fact, in this second task lies a big business, according to multiple sources consulted, who point out that large transport companies end up abandoning their original function to dedicate themselves exclusively to speculating. The Internet has made cargo trading more efficient, but at the cost of carriers.
“You can do transport where you know there have been seven intermediaries,” says Manuel Camuñas, president in Catalonia of the Astac autonomous transport union. “There are too many people in the chain who do not add any value,” criticizes Nuria Lacaci, general secretary of the Spanish Shippers Association.
The publisher of industry digital media Transportation DiaryJulio Gómez, affirms that the vertiginous race unleashed by trade on-line has also contributed to deterioration. “Amazon doesn’t have a single truck of its own; They are all autonomous carriers, nor do the vast majority of urgent transport and parcel companies have their own trucks.”
As transport is a highly fragmented sector, small businessmen have no bargaining power. They resign themselves and accept unfair conditions. 72% of the almost 106,000 companies registered in January had one or two trucks, according to the Ministry of Transport. Carriers know that if they refuse a freight at a very low price, another will take it instead.
This position of vulnerability makes them endure abusive conditions, according to the Astac union: late payments, untimely hours, long waits without payment or the improper imputation of damage to merchandise. Thus, many carriers have ended up throwing in the towel, which has caused a problem of lack of drivers. The Government calculates that in Spain there is a lack of around 15,000 professional drivers, a shortage that will increase in the next decade, given the average age of active professionals. “It has always been said that transportation is a jungle, but at least until the 1990s it was a very profitable business,” summarizes the editor of Transportation Diary.
Pedro Alfonsel, president of the Spanish Federation of Transport Auxiliaries (FEDAT), the organization that brings together 1,600 transport intermediaries, places the root of the sector’s structural problem in the difference between supply and demand. “If they raise my gas oil, then I pass it on to the client and that’s it. But now the client is in charge”, he exposes. Alfonsel admits that the operators he represents have a “bad reputation”, but defends that their margins are tight: “No client pays more, they give you between 8% and 9%. There is a myth of the bad rich and the poor good.
One obstacle to keeping striking carriers happy is that in a free-market economy, price interventions are difficult. Setting a minimum price is anathema for the National Commission of the Competition Market, who opposed this measure when consulted in 2019 by the central government. The CNMC understood that an intervention would constitute a restriction on economic operators’ freedom to set prices, which would have a significant impact on final prices and harm consumers.
What the transporters have started this winter from the Government is the updating of the price when there is a rise in fuel between the time of contracting and the carrying out of the freight. This is a reform that entered into force in a royal decree-law of March 1, and that did not satisfy the organizing platform of the strikes. Another reform to which the Government has committed itself after the 1:00 p.m. meeting on Thursday is the preparation before June 31 of a bill that limits subcontracting, so that it indirectly ensures that no freight is made below of the cost price.
The future of the sector looks dark due to the necessary sustainability and the difficult adjustment of profit margins, but also to achieve a generational change. A large part of the drivers will retire in a decade and there are no replacement professionals. It is a common problem that stings in almost the entire European Union and the US.
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