Unions call for lorry driver walkout over Covid-19

Drivers have said that their working conditions are not safe enough to face up to Covid-19

Lorry drivers across France are being called to exercise their right to stop working due to risk of Covid-19, but an industry boss has said “there is no shortage [of goods] to fear” as a result.

Three unions of lorry drivers - the CFDT, FO and CFTC - have called on staff to individually exercise their “droit de retrait (right to withdraw, or stop working)” from Monday (yesterday, March 30), which workers have a legal right to do if they feel that their job is no longer safe.

The unions have said that driver working conditions - and the closure of many roadside service stations - mean it is difficult to wash regularly or eat safely, and that they do not have sufficient protection from the virus during deliveries.

In a press release, the unions said: “We unfortunately cannot say that the working conditions of staff, when it comes to health and safety, are at the correct levels.

“Some efforts have been noticed, but this is not enough given the health risks, and it is becoming more and more dangerous to face up to this pandemic. [We have a daily] lack of masks, gloves, and hand sanitiser gel...bathrooms and showers…

“There are not enough restaurants and clients do not respect drivers to the correct extent.”

The unions are calling for “seriously protective measures during this time of war”, and are demanding that all non-essential transport is stopped. They are also calling for service stations and roadside rest areas - including restaurants and cafes - to be “requisitioned” and re-opened for driver use only.

For drivers of medical items, they are calling for the “same protections as emergency healthcare staff”.

French economy minister Bruno Le Maire has said that he understands the drivers’ demands.

He said: “The health safety of workers is non-negotiable. We must guarantee the safety of drivers. We must also ensure they are welcomed in good conditions; that they are able to wash their hands, and rest if necessary.”

Yet, the unions said that few drivers had heeded the call to stop work on Monday, and that the situation was still worrying.

Alexis Degouy, general manager of logistics union l'Union des Entreprises de Transport et Logistique de France (Union TLF) said: "It is anecdotal. In businesses employing 60,000 workers, we are talking about fewer than a dozen cases [of staff walking out].

"That doesn't mean that we are not acknowledging the worries [of drivers]. These are real fears that workers are expressing."

Mr Degouy said that the current level of absenteeism in the profession was at "a relatively manageable" 15%.

Patrice Clos, general secretary told the Agence-France-Presse: "They tell us that we are essential, but they send us to the coal face and let us suffer."

"We will ensure continued supply"

Florence Bertholot, general manager at leading drivers’ association la Fédération Nationale des Transporteurs Routiers (FNTR) has said that even if more drivers stop working, “there is no shortage [of goods] to fear”.

“We are a responsible profession. Road transport will flow,” she explained in an interview with public news service FranceInfo.

Ms Bertholot said that the association had been helping drivers to ensure proper and safe working conditions, but said that she accepted that some clients had not been respecting the rules, such as social distancing.

She acknowledged the lack of available service stations and washing facilities.

She said: “This is a problem that we have seen over the past two weeks, with the closure of a certain number of rest stops. But we must remember that the government has intervened and re-opened some stations, but this isn’t uniform everywhere.

“That is why we are launching a big campaign - ‘We drive for you’ - calling for drivers to have access to bathrooms, showers, and food at all service stops that are open and along their route.

“Roadside restaurants are closed; service stations are open, but we know that there have been problems with having enough staff to maintain bathrooms and showers. We must organise this better.”

Ms Bertholot also sought to assuage fears that driver walkouts could cause a lack of essential goods and food on shelves.

She said: “We must reassure our fellow citizens...We will ensure continued supply. We are talking about a whole, organised, responsible supply chain. There is no shortage to fear, because there is absolutely no lack of stock.”

According to data from the FO union, the logistics and transport industry employs 750,000 people in France, of which 1,500 have been diagnosed with Covid-19, including five deaths.

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