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COVID-19 and road transport

Help needed for the “heroes” of the road

Risks related to infection, theft and quarantine, combined with the closure of welfare facilities and other restrictions, have created complex social and economic issues for road transport drivers and companies during the COVID-19 pandemic.

News | 19 March 2021

GENEVA (ILO News) – The road transport industry has been badly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and urgent action will be critical if the industry’s decent work and financial concerns are to be tackled, according to ILO Transport Specialist, Alejandra Cruz Ross.

Governments, workers’ and employers’ organizations, and others involved in the road transport supply chain – shippers, receivers, transport buyers and intermediaries – will need to work together to tackle the crisis effectively, she said.

“Truckers… who deliver medical equipment and other essentials, must be adequately protected,” said ILO Director-General, Guy Ryder.

In some countries, Governments have classified truck drivers as key or essential workers and have exempted them, and other logistics workers, from pandemic restrictions.

The International Road Transport Union (IRU), the global industry association for road transport, representing 3.5 million transport companies, has warned that the sector’s structure makes it particularly vulnerable to financial challenges, because it is largely composed of owner-operators, independent contractors, and micro and small enterprises.

Rescue packages and support measures should be tailored to these realities, if a wave of bankruptcies is to be avoided, the IRU warned.

© Saiyna Bashir / IMF
“The road transport industry has had an extremely difficult year with losses globally due to the COVID-19 pandemic expected to surpass USD 1 Trillion,” said Umberto de Pretto, Secretary General of the IRU. “Our drivers have continued working through the crisis, bringing people and goods to where they are needed. Often facing pointless restrictions, especially at borders, that put them more at risk, they are essential workers. They should receive the same protection as other vital service workers, including early vaccination.”

The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), which represents 19 million transport workers, cites a range of decent work challenges facing truck drivers, created or exacerbated by COVID-19 restrictions.

Truckers have experienced long shifts, as some governments relax working and/or driving time rules. There have been long waiting times and discrimination related to mandatory quarantine or closure of land ports-of-entry. Some shipper and receiver locations have inadequate facilities, including a lack of access to fresh water and bathrooms.

According to James P. Hoffa, Chair of the ITF’s road transport section, truck drivers have played a crucial role in keeping global freight chains moving during the pandemic. “Truck drivers are being recognized as heroes for keeping the shelves stocked and hospitals supplied,” he said.

Occupational risks have also increased including violence related to the theft of cargos of essential products and pharmaceuticals, and shortages of personal protective equipment. Some truckers are also facing financial distress as a result of lower freight rates, uncertainty about insurance coverage, and inadequate social protection for independent or informal drivers.

“Again it is transport workers, who have sacrificed so much throughout this pandemic to keep the world moving, who are the innocent victims of COVID restrictions,” said Stephen Cotton, General Secretary, ITF. “The coronavirus pandemic has starkly exposed that access to decent sanitary facilities is truly a global issue. Lack of access to sanitary facilities is an affront to human dignity for all transport workers.”

The ILO has published Guidelines on the promotion of decent work and road safety in the transport sector that offer a basis for tackling some of these industry challenges. There is also a Sectoral brief on COVID-19 and road transport, that includes a summary of responses and support measures taken by ILO constituents. These include the ITF/IRU: Joint demands for governments and international bodies, which looks at ways to improve drivers’ working conditions and financial situation during the pandemic, including access to health care and other social protection measures.

In addition, the IRU has published a COVID-19 call for action to governments, which highlights the need for government support to prevent bankruptcies, introduce technology and digitalize the sector, and increase coordination in border-crossing procedures.