Haulage drivers delivering to Amazon distribution centres across Europe allege that safety records are being deliberately manipulated and wages withheld in a breach of the e-commerce multinational’s pledges about working conditions in its supply chain.
HGV drivers recruited from former Soviet-bloc countries have told the Guardian that they were instructed to cheat tachograph machines that log their working hours, so that they could drive illegally long and unsafe stints in western Europe.
HGV driving has traditionally been a well-paid sector, heavily regulated for public safety, and Amazon – which has prospered during the pandemic and is now worth an estimated $1.7tn (£1.3tn) – promises that all its suppliers are required to pay fair wages for appropriate working hours.
However, the testimony of three drivers, Olek Shevchenko from Ukraine, Arip Sidikkhodja from Uzbekistan and Ihar Peratoka from Belarus, raises questions over conditions in Amazon’s supply chain.
The men each allege similar abuses while working on Amazon deliveries for Hegelmann, a major European group of several haulage companies with revenues of more than €600m (£534m). Companies in the group function as separate legal entities.
Hegelmann’s Lithuanian company owns a fleet of 700 trucks and employs the drivers on Lithuanian contracts. It buses them to western Europe where they then make multinational deliveries for Amazon, as well as other European retailers, in the name of a Hegelmann company registered in Germany.
The Dutch transport workers’ union VNB said Hegelmann had repeatedly featured in its own investigations, with workers from several countries making similar allegations about tachograph records and withheld wages.
Edwin Atema, lead investigator for VNB, said: “Our findings are shocking and we consider Hegelmann’s activities to break Europe’s most important and fundamental principles of security for workers and fair competition between companies.”
He said the union would inform law enforcement of its findings. Hegelmann group’s owner and CEO, Siegfried Hegelmann, said the company does not condone any malpractice and would investigate any alleged cases of cheating of tachographs.
A spokesman for Amazon said: “All partners are required to comply with applicable laws and Amazon’s supplier code of conduct, which focuses on fair wages, benefits, appropriate working hours and compensation. We take immediate action if we find a partner is not complying.”
The Guardian understands Amazon is in the process of severing its contractual arrangements with Hegelmann.
“We work with a variety of haulier partners to get packages around our logistics network and these allegations in no way reflect the high standards we hold our partners to,” Amazon added, pointing out that Hegelmann also works for other retailers and represents a small part of Amazon’s business.
The Uzbek driver Sidikkhodja described being recruited by an agency in Tashkent that charged him a $1,000 fee, which he paid because he believed the better wages he would receive in Europe would make up for his costs.
Hegelmann’s contract with Sidikkhodja promised him 1.3 times the Lithuanian minimum wage, about €720 a month at the time. However he says he had a verbal agreement that he would receive a starting wage of €500, later rising to €2,000, but that he was never paid more than €1,500.
He described Amazon as a large part of his work, with two or three trans-European hauls a week.
Sidikkhodja alleged Hegelmann provided him with a spare tachograph if it appeared he might need to work illegal hours to complete a haul, and would later collect the spare tachograph to stop it being discovered in spot checks by transport police.
Safety regulations require drivers to rest away from their trucks at regular intervals. A document shared with the Guardian appears to account for two nights in Hegelmann-owned accommodation in Hanover. However, Sidikkhodja said he never took the rest in the hotel.
Instead, he described working long shifts with an Uzbek co-driver, with whom he would take cold water washes by the roadside and do exercises to try and stay awake in between sleeping in his cab.
Hegelmann said it encourages drivers to stay in a network of hotels it has established for their statutory rest. It said that while it provides invoices to drivers for hotel stays that may not have been spent in the hotel, there is no EU requirement to check where drivers stayed.
The Ukrainian driver Shevchenko was recruited through an online advert and stayed in a hostel in Kaunas, Lithuania, for a few weeks while awaiting driver accreditation, before being minibussed into western Europe.
This summer, 18 coronavirus cases were reported among Uzbek drivers in Hegelmann’s Kaunas hostel. While those testing positive were isolated, other asymptomatic drivers who shared facilities with them were sent on across Europe.
Hegelmann said Lithuanian law did not require the men to be quarantined, and that it informed and cooperated with German authorities when they subsequently became ill with Covid.
Employment law requires that drivers are paid according to the country where they work. However, all three Hegelmann drivers said they never worked in Lithuania, despite being recruited and hired via Hegelmann in Kaunas; instead they worked in western European countries with higher legal minimum wages.
Hegelmann said it obeyed all rules on pay, and that a shortage of EU drivers, rather than cheaper wages, led it to recruit through Lithuania.
Shevchenko claimed management told him to use a spare tachograph multiple times, but that he refused to do so because he knew it was illegal. He also alleged he was provided with paperwork claiming he had taken safety rests away from his truck, when in fact he had not, and was never paid what he was promised.
The Guardian has seen a copy of a statement made to Belgian police by Peratoka, who claimed to have lived in his cab during his time working for Hegelmann since 2017. He also described being given fake hotel invoices in an interview with the Guardian, and said he was aware of tachograph fiddling.
Peratoka alleged he was effectively trapped in western Europe during the coronavius pandemic because Hegelmann had refused to relieve him at the end of his agreed driving period, despite his repeated requests to go home.
In June, Belgian authorities intervened and arranged for him to return to Lithuania and for Hegelmann to pay him what he had been promised. Hegelmann said closed borders made it difficult to relieve drivers during the pandemic and that average pay had been affected. It added that one of its drivers was in fact paid early, because his truck had been detained by Belgian police.
“Hegelmann hires employees from various countries and aims to ensure all work conditions are comfortable, understandable and equal for all multicultural team members,” Siegfried Hegelmann said, adding his firm was an “open and transparent” company. “We will deal with any situation in accordance with all relevant legal acts, and are cooperating with institutions responsible.”
Source: The Guardian |NewsColony