Money

European Truck Drivers Tell Us About Life on the Road

"I'm not sure how to explain this to you, but I'm often very sad."

by Klaus Petrus
Jul 21 2016, 4:15pm

This article originally appeared on VICE Alps.

Truck driver Ürsu is parked in the lot of the Grauholz service area. The motorway outside of Bern is one of the oldest and busiest in Switzerland. "Being a lorry [truck] driver used to be a romantic job," says the 61-year-old, but things have changed. "Congested roads, tight time schedules, 'round the clock surveillance, and a lousy pay at the end of the month." He wouldn't want to trade places with the younger generation of truck drivers.

Long-distance truck driving is a demanding job—the average working week is 48 hours of driving, which can be extended to up to 60 hours. In the UK, a lorry driver earns an average of $2,700 a month before tax, while the average in the Netherlands is about $2,000 and in Germany about £$2,100. It doesn't look like working conditions or wages will ever improve, given that shipping agents from Western European countries are employing more drivers from middle and Eastern Europe who do the same work for half those wages.

These drivers from countries like Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Belarus, or Ukraine are often on the road for weeks or even months, and they sit, eat, and sleep on less than three square meters during that time. For many of them, it's the unemployment at home that forces them to drive for any wage—which some carriers will gladly use to their advantage.

I went to the Grauholz service stop to meet some of these long-distance truck drivers. Some did not want to have their picture taken, so they asked me to take one of their truck instead. We chatted in English or German, with our hands and feet, or with help from Google Translate. However we communicated, one thing was clear: They all longed to be home.

Fjodor, 53, from Kazakhstan

"I've been on the road for almost three months now. I'll drive home in two weeks, together with a friend from Belarus. He's a long-distance truck driver like I am, but he has two young children. It's a bit easier for me, because my son is all grown up. I don't want to complain; I get paid €750 [$800] a month. At home, I could maybe make €100 [$110]—if I'd be able to make any money at all."

Kristjan, 26, from Estonia

"As a lorry driver, you're always waiting, always waiting. Hours—sometimes days. That's the worst part of the job. I used to bring a book with me when I started driving, but nowadays I just stare at my phone. I immediately feel better once I start driving again—it relaxes me. I don't mind not knowing where I will be next week, as long as I don't have to wait for very long. We're under more pressure than we used to be. We're being watched the whole time—by carriers, by clients, and by the police. I'm not sure how long I'll keep doing this. I might quit when I find a girlfriend."

Alexandr, 36, from Belarus

"Fjodor from Kazakhstan is my buddy. We often drive together, talk about all sorts of things—about life at home, about our problems, and about what's next for us. What's next after we retire from driving, I mean. I'm sometimes afraid of going home, especially when I've been away for a long time. You never know if something at home has drastically changed in the meantime because we are under a post-Soviet dictatorship. Of course I call my family whenever possible, but you just can't be sure about what the next day will bring. Believe me, I've seen enough to know."

Anatoli, 35, from Belarus

"I drove from Belarus to Lithuania, then through Poland to Germany and on to Switzerland. First, I was carrying wood, later furniture, then flowers. I think I'm bringing something like coffee pods along on my way back. I'm away for months on end sometimes. I'm not sure how to explain this to you, but I'm often very sad. I think of home—we have a little yard, it's beautiful there. But there's no work. What else can I do? Just getting my driving license cost me a fortune, I can't just quit. I need to earn money."

Mike, 56, born in Sicily, raised in Germany

"I used to own dozens of trucks. I carried all sorts of things—I mean, anything, really. I drove to places like South Africa, the United States, and Russia, to cities like Mexico City and Kabul. I made big money, but then I got sick of it. I just wanted to get as far away from that lifestyle as possible. Now I drive for only €2,500 [$2,700] a month. I'm with my fourth wife—she's Russian. She still knows what family means.

Yes, our working conditions are shit. The traffic, the pressure, the drivers from Eastern Europe—everything's shit. But whatever. I am 56, and I will drive until I die. This is my life, this is freedom. And no, I can't let you on my truck. I won't even allow my own brother to go in—it brings bad luck."

Andriy, in his 30s, from Ukraine

"I've been driving for two years now. It's the only job I can earn a living with. I get these images in my mind—usually right before I fall asleep, but they sometimes come to me while I'm driving. They're flashbacks to this one time when I had to go to hospital because I was hurt. Everything was so bright. The guy next to me had lost a leg and had a hole in his stomach. It was horrible. Those images keep coming back to me. Do you think I am going crazy? I don't want to be in the picture, but please write down that I want to have a good life. Nothing more than a good life. Can you do that for me?"

Jakub, 34, from Poland

"I drive for four weeks straight, and then I go home to Warsaw to my wife and kids for a couple of days. I carry potted flowers and tulips from the Netherlands to Switzerland, Italy, Spain—wherever. I miss my daughters. Today is my younger daughter's birthday, and I'm sitting here in the truck, far away from home."

Denis, 57, from Ukraine

"It doesn't bother me that I have to eat alone, sleep alone, drink alone. I mean, it's better not to think about how it would be if everything were different. But it can be difficult. My mother is sick; she's in a retirement home. When I think about her being there, I want to go home to visit her and talk to her about the past. She used to be a cheerful person; she always laughed a lot. I'm afraid she'll die suddenly, and I won't be there with her. But there are other times when I'm very happy to be far away. That's just how it is—I don't know what else to say."

Lazio, in his 40s, from Romania

"I only drive for the Germans and the Dutch. For Romanian companies, the truck comes first, before the man behind the wheel. That's why this life is fine the way it is for me—damn good, actually. I don't know why the others complain so much. I am able to think of my retirement for the first time in my life. I now have money to see a doctor when I'm ill. That's a good feeling."

Jan, 65, from the Netherlands

"I was supposed to retire in March, but I'll keep driving until October, because that month I'll be working for the same company for 25 years, and they'll throw me a huge party. I've been behind the wheel for more than 40 years. A lot has changed since I started—more traffic, more stress, less time. More drivers from Eastern Europe. They'll spend a lot of money on a license in Romania, Poland, or Russia, come here and say, 'Take me, I'll drive for any price, no matter where or for how long.' Don't get me wrong—I don't blame them at all. The carriers that employ them for half or a third of our pay are to blame. It's wrong. It's so, so wrong."

Ronaldo, 54, from Portugal

"One Schnitzel with fries, a salad, a cup of coffee plus a proper shower—all of that together would cost about €36 [$39] here in Switzerland. It would cost half of that in Germany, but I could't even afford it if it were €10 [$11]. I bring my own food with me. Always enough meat, some eggs, vegetables in glass jars. My brother is a farmer and for everything else—well, you can always get it somewhere."

Toni, 46, from Macedonia

"I have my own company, we're four drivers. I'm getting by, but it's tough. A carrier can only save on two things—diesel and the driver. Whoever is most cost-efficient gets the deal. That's not going to change in the next few years.

What difference would it make if I told you I was worried about the business? My drivers are reliable, I am my own boss, I have a family, the kids are healthy. I have photos of them—wait, I'll show you."

Ürsu, 61, from Switzerland

"I started driving on the 3rd of September, 1976—almost 40 years ago. The business has gotten tougher, but that's the case everywhere. The lack of respect these days, that really gets to me. It used to be that drivers really were something out on the road. I used to feel proud to drive a truck. I made so many friends, and we all used to look out for one another.

These days, everyone just looks out for themselves. And it's no wonder: Many people drive for breadline wages. They work for carriers that try to squeeze everything out of their drivers—the most important thing for them is that it doesn't cost much. It's modern slavery, basically. Well—things like that often cross my mind during those long journeys."