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Part 1: Rough roads: The exploitation of Filipino truck drivers in Europe
QUEZON, Philippines – The eerie silence of a nearly empty airport greeted Jayar Santos when he landed in Manila in April 2020.
It was a stark difference from the blaring horns of cars and high-pitched whistles of security guards trying to put order into the chaos of scurrying passengers that Santos remembered when he had left years before.
COVID-19 had silenced the world. Santos had lost his job, and he was trying his hardest not to lose hope too.
The global pandemic was the latest in a series of unfortunate events that led Santos to abandon a trail that brought him from the fields of Pampanga, where he grew up, to the highways of Europe, where he worked as a migrant truck driver.
First, he and his eight Filipino colleagues decided to file a case of human trafficking against their employer, King’s Transport. While the case was being investigated, Santos found work as a delivery driver for a restaurant under a special visa issued to victims of human trafficking.
Then COVID-19 happened. The restaurant he worked for closed down, as did the rest of the world.
“I asked my boss when we could work again, and he said, ‘I don’t know.’ Naisip ko lang nun, paano na ’yung mag-iina ko na ako lang ang inaasahan?” Santos recalled. (All I could think about then was, what would happen to my wife and kids, who depended on me?)
Jobless and anxious about the uncertainty brought by the pandemic, Santos decided to go back to the Philippines, where he could at least be with his family.
In September 2021, the Dutch authorities dismissed the Filipino truck drivers’ complaint of human trafficking. The decision reviewed by Rappler described the drivers’ working conditions as “unfortunate and unfavorable,” but fell short of what would constitute human trafficking under their laws.
The dismissal of their case was another blow to Santos’ dreams.
Migrant truck drivers like Santos are wedged between the harsh realities of two countries. In the European Union countries they work in, they face labor exploitation, enabled by vague laws and their uneven implementation across borders. At home, they face unemployment and job insecurity. Wherever they go, they are left looking for ways to rise above the economic uncertainty they try so hard to escape.
A truck driver in Europe
It was evening when the Dutch police came to the parking lot to rescue Santos and his colleagues in 2019. The police were responding to the complaint of human trafficking Santos and his fellow migrant truck drivers had filed against their employer, King’s Transport, and its owner, Mustapha To’ma.
Santos and the others had started working for King’s Transport at different times, but all of them worked under the same oppressive working conditions. In documents reviewed by Rappler, the Filipino truck drivers list of grievances included excessive driving hours, being forced to drive with expired tracking equipment to bypass mandatory resting periods, and verbal abuse from their employer.
This was in addition to being paid salaries that were lower than what they had been promised, and being forced to live in their trucks because they were not given accommodations.
“Sabi ng police, ‘My dog have a house, but you are human.’ Mga tao kayo, tapos d’yan kayo pinapatira. Trinato daw kaming parang hayop, sabi nila,” said Santos. (The police said, even my dog has a house. You’re humans, but you were made to live here. They said we were treated like animals.)
One exhausted driver met with an accident while driving the snowy streets of Belgium. The documents alleged that his employer pulled him out of the hospital and forced him to drive again the very next day.
Another driver, Ryan, who requested only his first name be used, had worked for King’s Transport for a few months. He returned to the Philippines before the case was filed.
In a phone interview, Ryan recalled their situation and told Rappler: “Kung kausapin kami, kung utusan kami, kung tratuhin kami, parang slaves talaga. Hindi ko kinaya.” (The way he talked to us, the way he ordered us around. We were really treated as slaves. I couldn’t take it anymore.)
Legislation gaps in Europe
Suffering from a shortage of truck drivers, European companies are looking to low-wage countries in eastern Europe and as far as the Philippines to fill in the gap. Vague transport laws and their loose implementation across EU borders, coupled with loopholes in labor laws, allow employers to maximize profits by circumventing a basic employment principle: workers are paid a salary that is consistent with the wage laws of the countries they work in.
While Santos’ employer, King’s Transport, operates almost exclusively in the Netherlands, where minimum wage is about €650 (P36,880), it is registered in Poland. This allowed King’s Transport to subject its employees to exploitative working conditions and pay wages that are much lower than what is mandated by Dutch national laws or the country they work in – and do so with impunity.
Neither King’s Transport nor its owner, To’ma, were made to face penalties or pay fines. Dutch authorities do not have the jurisdiction to mete out penalties to a company registered outside of its borders.
Migrant workers are caught between an impossible legal threshold for what constitutes human trafficking and an absence of laws that will prosecute other forms of labor exploitation experienced by the likes of Santos and his colleagues.
According to Jeroen Maas, lawyer for the truck drivers, what is most unfortunate is that the decision of the Dutch authorities was two months short of a three-year prescriptive period. After three years, the trafficking victim is issued a residence permit, regardless of the outcome of the criminal investigation.
“If the prosecutor would have dropped the case two months later, most of the drivers would have qualified for the residence permit on humanitarian grounds,” explained Maas.
Santos would not qualify for this as he had already returned to the Philippines, but he could not help but be hurt by the decision. He recalled that when he was still in the Netherlands, as the investigation dragged on and the three-year period had inched closer, he began to make plans to apply for a family reunification visa. During his daily video calls to his wife, the couple allowed themselves to close the distance between them by daydreaming about being together in Europe.
His wife, Majie, went as far as securing a passport.
“Hindi ako fanatic makapag-abroad, pero parang sarap lang isipin na p’wede na kami magsama. Ngayon, ang mga pangarap namin parang nawala na parang bula,” she said. (I’m not thrilled by the idea of going abroad, but it was nice to dream about being together again. Now, our dreams have burst like a bubble.)
Falling through the cracks in the Philippines
According to migrant rights advocates, cases of labor exploitation, like the case of the Filipino truck drivers, underscore the need for the government to take on a more proactive stance on migrant issues in Europe.
“The Philippine government’s response to the plight of migrant workers in Europe has mostly been reactive. Their focus is more on workers in Asia and the Middle East, but labor exploitation in Europe can be just as bad as in other countries,” said Ellene Sana, executive director of the Center for Migrant Advocacy.
Recent developments in the global labor market indicate that more Filipino workers will target Europe as a work destination. Saudi Arabia, the country with the most recorded Filipino migrant workers, started its nationalization program, prioritizing Saudi citizens for jobs.
Joanna Concepcion, chairperson of Migrante International, said that Filipino workers started feeling the impact of “Saudization” a few years back, when they reported being laid off and their jobs given to Saudi nationals. The situation was exacerbated by the pandemic.
“The government has yet to acknowledge the crisis of returning migrants who have been economically displaced or lost their jobs because of the compounded impact of the Saudi nationalization program and the pandemic. Filipino workers will continue to return to the Philippines. Without livelihood options here, our workers may become more vulnerable to human trafficking when looking for employment abroad,” said Concepcion.
An official in the Philippine embassy in The Netherlands, who requested not to be named because he is not authorized to speak on the subject, acknowledged that Netherlands’ current legislation has a high threshold for cases to be considered as human trafficking, making it difficult to bring charges against unscrupulous employers.
“The Philippine Embassy maintains regular contact with the Filipino truck drivers and their lawyer, as well as the Dutch Trade Union Confederation (FNV), specifically with their employment and temporary residence options during the pendency of their case,” the official said.
Family man in the Philippines
Santos’ house in Quezon province sits in a grassy field with a view of the soft billowy clouds that sit atop Banahaw mountains. There is enough space for a room for his two sons and a room for him and his wife.The house is half-built, and he does not know how long it will remain half-finished.
Santos’ monthly salary as a truck driver in Europe was carefully divided to cover food and daily essentials plus buying cement and cinder block. The house, quite literally, was being built brick by brick.
Building his house, like working in Europe, was a dream come true for Santos. While other young children played with toy trucks and tractors, Santos spent his childhood riding them with his siblings as their father tended the corn fields.
“Hindi ko nga alam na may Pilipinong truck driver sa Europe. Ang alam ko nga lang nun sa Saudi,” said Santos. (I didn’t even know there were Filipino truck drivers in Europe. I only knew about the ones working in Saudi.)
Since he returned to the Philippines, he has found work as a truck driver for provincial deliveries. However, the transport industry has been slow to recover from the pandemic, and work has been sporadic and unsteady.
“Minsan nakikita ko s’yang nakatulala. ’Pag tinatanong ko s’ya ano naisip n’ya, sasabihin n’ya ’yung buhay n’ya sa Europe,” said his wife, Majie. (I sometimes catch him in a dazed state. When I ask him what’s on his mind, he says his life in Europe.)
“Sana makabalik. Masaya ako na kasama ko dito pamilya ko, pero ang buhay dito, ang hirap lang talaga ng trabaho dito sa atin,” Santos said. (I hope I can go back. I’m happy to be with my family here, but life here is hard because finding work is just so difficult.] – with reports from Jofelle Tesorio/Rappler.com
This story was produced in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.