Social dumping: not a problem for Belgium!

It has taken four years of endless work, lobbying, persuasion and action to finally persuade Europe to take measures to combat social dumping in the transport sector.

Social dumping means that Belgian drivers are losing their jobs and that drivers from Eastern Europe are being exploited. It also means that the Belgian government is losing tax revenue and social security contributions. Not to mention the unfair competition that honest transport companies suffer from, day after day.

And now that Europe has set out – finally, and much too late – a mobility package designed to tackle this insidious cancer, the Belgian State, in conjunction with Malta, is lodging proceedings in the European Union Court of Justice against (part) of this package of measures. Go figure, if you can!

As a result, Belgium is the laughing stock of the States of Western Europe and is losing all credibility in the eyes of those who take the fight against social dumping seriously.

The mobility package: a useful tool in the fight against social dumping

The European mobility package provides an arsenal of measures aimed at enabling Member States to fight more effectively against social fraud in the transport sector. In particular, it obliges truck drivers and their vehicles to return to their country of origin every three weeks or to the country where the haulage company actually conducts its business. This mandatory return is designed to enable drivers to have a social life and also to avoid having drivers from low-wage countries constantly cross-crossing the Belgian road network.

The mobility package also includes the introduction of digital tachographs from 2026, which is aimed at improving checks. The mandatory installation of digital tachographs from 2026 onwards, including in light commercial vehicles, is designed to help counter the trend towards using more van-sized vehicles in transport businesses. Checks on so-called ‘cabotage’ (in which jobs are carried out in one country using vehicles from another country) will be more efficient, as will checks covering the ban on drivers taking their weekly rest period on board their truck. As a result, the installation of digital tachographs in every vehicle used for professional transport is essential for improving the safety of all road users, as well as increasing the efficiency of the checks carried out.

A delicate compromise

Employer organisations, unions, MEPs, etc. all had their own view about the contents of the mobility package. So it is only logical that everyone should criticise certain points of the final result. As far as the unions are concerned, the implementation of these measures is taking too much time and some of them would have gone further anyway. But if you want to have rules that cover the whole of Europe, you need to be able to accept compromises. As a result, the union organisations are defending the compromise together with their European umbrella organisation, the ETF – the European Transport Workers’ Federation. It’s a delicate and difficult compromise in which every measure counts and has its own importance and where everyone has had to make concessions and have their say.

But to question just one aspect of the mobility package amounts to questioning the compromise itself.

Belgium abandons the side of the ‘goodies’

Under pressure from the employer federations, Belgium is now opposed to part of the mobility package, even though it was involved itself in negotiating the measures. This puts Belgium outside the group of countries acting against the lobbying from Eastern Europe, which is made up of those countries that want to derail or water down the mobility package, the so-called Visegrád Group.

Belgium had worked with France, Germany, Denmark and others in the transport alliance to obtain a substantial package. By calling part of that package into question, Belgium is opting to side with those countries that want to continue social dumping.

It also calls into question the efforts of the European Union to fight social dumping. Fortunately, there are still some countries that continue to defend the compromise fiercely. Hence Denmark and Sweden are supporting the European Union in its defence of the package, which Belgium should also have done.

The reason behind the desertion of the Belgian government

According to our mobility ministers, the cabotage rules set out in the mobility package would harm the interests of Belgian employers. This is a complex story that merits a word of explanation. What is cabotage?

Cabotage happens when a lorry that has just completed an international haulage job is allowed to carry out a specific number of other jobs in the country where it unloaded its cargo prior to returning home. Here’s an example: a Belgian haulage driver takes a shipment from Ghent to Paris. Once it has been unloaded, the truck can then carry out three haulage jobs in France within seven days of the initial unloading. The lorry then has to return to Ghent. The mobility package provides for a waiting period of four days before the truck can carry out the same type of assignment in France.

Quite rightly, too: the rules of cabotage are often hijacked to enable foreign truckers to drive permanently in Belgium and elsewhere in Western Europe in contravention of dumping tariffs. The waiting period of four days is a way of combating these abuses of the rules. Also, having completed their cabotage jobs in France, Belgian lorries can then take on an international haulage assignment to Germany, without adhering to the waiting period requirements, to again carry out more cabotage jobs. In reality, this presents no problem for honest Belgian companies, but it does for those transport companies that have created letterbox companies in Eastern Europe. These businesses will have many more problems to keep operating – which is precisely the intended aim!

Yet the employers are crying blue murder. The employer federations, UPTR, TLV and Febetra are behaving like children who have had their dummy taken away. They have taken their gripes to the regional governments, which have simply caved in to their pressure.

The Flemish Mobility Minister, Lydia Peeters, has jumped on the bandwagon and the Federal Government has followed her without really knowing what it is all about. Minister Gilkinet has purely and simply omitted to consult with the rest of the Federal Government and has decided all by himself to call into question the ‘cabotage’ segment of the mobility package.

In doing so, he has taken on a crushing responsibility. Belgium is not only breaking ranks with the countries fighting social dumping, but it is also actively defending those Member States which, by lodging these proceedings with the European Court of Justice, have but one goal in mind: to continue their practices of social dumping. Shame on you, Gilkinet!

Second session for a ‘busted’ Gilkinet!

We still have the hope that the Federal Government will come to its senses and rectify this mistake. Belgium would do well to stop the proceedings, turn away from the Maltese error and rejoin Sweden and Denmark in their defence of the mobility package.
It is also high time we finally started cracking down on social dumping practices. The transport directorate of the Control Inspectorate for social law currently has seven inspectors for the whole of Flanders! That’s right: seven inspectors. Which is ridiculous.

Elsewhere, the other inspection services and police are scandalously underequipped. As a result, it is absolutely impossible for the federal police to organise any form of systematic checks on the prohibition stopping drivers from taking their weekly break aboard their trucks impossible. The police simply do not have the staff.

Yet every inspector responsible for conducting checks on social dumping earns ten times as much. Fraud is organised on such a large scale that it should be easy to catch the ‘baddies’. But there is a lack of political will, apparently.

The Socialists in the Federal Government should perhaps be tweaking the ears of the Green minister – or maybe even take the initiative themselves in those departments that come under the responsibilities.

This means that our claim for the immediate doubling of the number of inspectors is far from unreasonable. If the risk of getting caught is minimal, the fraudsters have free rein to continue their shady practices. If the Belgian government really wants to show clearly that it takes social dumping seriously, doubling the number of inspectors would already be a good start. As would be calling a halt to the proceedings against the mobility package.

 

Frank Moreels
President UBT
15.03.2021