Report on the situation at Wincanton/Sainsbury’s Transport Office in Greenford


1. Introduction
2. General set-up and conditions
3. My job
4. Workplace divisions
5. Discontents
6. Supply and demand
7. Monitoring, surveillance, bureaucracy and health and safety
8. General background info on the Heavy Goods Vehicle (HGV) sector
9. Examples of recent truck drivers’ struggles
10. Conclusions


1. Introduction

For a while I worked in the transport office at the Sainsbury’s warehouse [1] that was run by logistics company, Wincanton. Like most transport offices, it was a lively, often stressful environment with plenty of testosterone and banter. I got to know some of the drivers and got some insight into the level of organisation that was needed to get 180 supermarkets at least one delivery a day.

I worked in the transport office of the distribution centre, meaning that I was in the office that co-ordinated all the stock coming into and out of the warehouse. Essentially, it was the place that linked the warehouse (storage and picking side), with the distribution side (driving the stuff to the stores). So if something would go wrong on the warehouse side, for example, if the pickers worked slow or the wrong cages were loaded, the delivery would be delayed. And vice versa, if the driver picking up the food (called a ‘backhaul’ delivery) was stuck in traffic and was late, the pickers wouldn’t have anything to pick – which happened about once or twice a month. This cooperation was mediated by the layer of middle-managers who often seemed stressed out and shouting – at the warehouse staff to work faster or at each other because they relied on each other to maintain what needed to be a fast-paced, well-timed, mass operation.

There was a lot to get my head around when I started. A lot could go wrong: loaders could load the stuff onto the wrong lorry; the temperature to store the chilled and frozen goods could be set incorrectly and you could end up with thousands of pounds worth of stock you couldn’t sell; traffic could mean your delivery was late, which had a knock-on effect on other deliveries later in the day; supermarket managers would ring up and complain, shouting about their late delivery; lorries could break down; drivers would have to have a certain amount of rest which meant they sometimes had to be put up in hotels if something went wrong and they couldn’t get back to the depot in time…For the office staff it was a difficult balancing act between getting all the deliveries out, on time, with the right driver for the right-sized vehicle, remembering to make sure you treated the drivers like human beings…

Working as a transport clerk was interesting in order to see another part of how the global supermarket-warehouse chain operates on a day-to-day level. This has turned into a rather long article, a shorter, snappier version will be featured in the next edition of our west-London workers’ newspaper, WorkersWildWest, due to hit the streets in January. Hasta luego!

2. General set-up and conditions

The set-up is similar to most big supermarket chains: the company, in this case, Sainsbury’s, contracts out a large part of their warehousing and distribution operation. So while Sainsbury’s does directly run some warehouses, more prevalent is the situation where a logistics company, like Wincanton, runs the warehouse and does the job of sorting out the deliveries, transporting the goods to the supermarkets and hiring the army of staff required to make this happen. Wincanton is one of the largest logistics company in the UK, it runs over 200 warehouses, and has about 4,000 trucks/transport vehicles.

It is a big operation. Wincanton is contracted by Sainsbury’s to make sure 180 convenience stores – mainly in and around London- are fully stocked. Within one 24-hour period, the ‘backhauls’ had be delivered to the warehouse – these were deliveries direct from the food factories, such as Noons (local ready-meal factory) and Wealmoor (local fruit and veg preparation and packaging unit). These are then ‘picked’ (the right amount of each item sorted into the right cages for each store), and sent out again. Each of the 180 stores had to get at least one delivery a day. 9pm and 5am were the busiest times when around 150 deliveries had to go out. At 6am and 9.30am there were about 70-80 deliveries. A rolling schedule had to be kept on top of to make sure deliveries left at the right time. About a third of all the deliveries were ‘double-hitters’, which meant that two stores’ deliveries were on one lorry.

On average, 80 drivers a week were used, in every 24-hour period, around a third were agency drivers. If agency drivers weren’t available, permanent drivers were offered overtime. Both agency and permanent drivers were paid for a minimum of 8-hours, even if they were sent home before then (although this was not applicable to overtime). The rate for permanent drivers was around £12/hr which went up to £18/hr on Sunday.

Drivers’ work times vary – they can start any time of the day or night, they can be sent home early when there’s no work or end up working a 13-hour shift (although driving time might be significantly less). Drivers usually did three deliveries in one shift, swapping lorries each time.

3. My job

My job was to ‘track’ the lorries (and of course, the drivers) on the Isotrak software system to make sure the deliveries got to the supermarket on time. Each store has a ‘target time’ for the delivery. After 7am, the driver has one hour after the target time to get there. Before 7am, he has a 45-minute window after the target time to get there. This was obviously written into the contract between Sainsbury’s and Wincanton. If the delivery arrives outside this one-hour or 45-minute window, it is classed as ‘late’ and I had to write a late report each time, explaining to Sainsbury’s what the reason for the delay was. Obviously, Wincanton, which organises the warehouse and delivery for Sainsbury’s, never wants to admit responsibility for any ‘lates’, as this will make them look incompetent and jeopardise their contract in the future. So I often had to be, let’s say, ‘economical’ with the truth…I had to see whether we could blame traffic (usually there was always some on the A205 and A406 which were the main arteries into central London that most deliveries had to go along), or roadworks. Failing that, it could be things like a mechanical fault with the vehicle, the driver sometimes getting lost, or not enough drivers (“driver blow out”).

So my main job was to keep an eye on the status of the deliveries, to check they had arrived on time and if they were going to be late. I had to check the daily traffic and roadworks updates online to pre-empt any delays, and if they were going to be late, I had to inform the managers (via text messages and in person) and the store in question, letting them know the officially sanctioned reason for the late. Each lorry is fitted with an GPS tracking device, so I could see exactly where the drivers were, if they had stopped and for how long. Big Brother in action! I was told to call the drivers if I saw they had been in one place for longer than they should have been. Basically, check up on them and keep them moving. When I said I was uncomfortable with that, the shift manager told me “you better get comfortable with that!”

Because so many deliveries and target times were running simultaneously, it was quite a job to make sure you were on top of things. There was a knack to knowing which deliveries were running the risk of being late and it was pretty stressful to keep an eye on everything at the same time. Sometimes I had to ring up drivers and find out what was going on, such as when they were delayed at a store, which was going to have a knock-on effect on them reaching their second store on time. Reasons for delays at the stores was, more often than not, because they didn’t have enough supermarket staff to unload the delivery.

So there was always ten things to do at the same time – and at 6am, when my shift started, it was a tall order! Shifts were 12-hours long, four days on, four days off. As well as keeping an eye on the expected arrival time of all the deliveries, I had to register all of the agency drivers at the start of their shift by checking their paperwork and digicard (this was a card you put into a reader which showed their hours of work to check were not driving more than was legally allowed) and sometimes photocopying their documents. On average, agency drivers made up about a quarter to a third of all drivers on any one 12-hour shift. I also had to do random daily DQC (driving qualification card) checks, although it depended on whose shift I was working if I actually did them as they were not deemed so important for one shift. These were random document checks that had to be conducted amongst agency drivers, normally around 2 or 3 a day. I had to check their digicard, driving licence and CPC (Certificate of Professional Competence) card. Seemed like a bit of a pointless exercise, especially when all of their documents were checked and photocopied at the beginning of every week…

I was also sometimes asked to put together a quick report of when lorries were scheduled to be back in the yard, and print out and collate the risk assessments for the following shift (mind-numbing filing). This was basically the paperwork the drivers took with them on their delivery, showing what delivery they were down for, as well as directions to the store. Sometimes I’d also have to jump on the de-brief desk when drivers came in to finish their shift – basically going over their paperwork to see if it matched up with what was on their digicard and asking them if they’d had any problems that day. And at the end of the shift I had to check that all the keys to the lorries were accounted for. After the morning rush, things were pretty easygoing so I had time to look at the internet and chat to the drivers and some of the other office staff.

The most stressful part of the job was having to call up the drivers to ‘check up on them’. I hated doing it and tried to be as non-accusatory as possible, but a few times, understandably the drivers got pissed off. Fair enough, they didn’t like being hassled when they were on a job. So I tried to avoid it if I could, but sometimes it was unavoidable, like when I was told directly to do it.

In general, I found this work in the office more soul-destroying than being a warehouse picker. I was always surrounded by horrible managers so you often had to plaster on a smile even though you secretly wanted to boil them alive, knowing as well how they treated the warehouse pickers. And even though my colleagues on the front desk were all very nice, there was something about ‘the office’ – with it’s filing, photocopying, sniping politics, aspirationalism, back-covering, and banter that bordered on real aggression – that made me nostalgic for the ‘we’re all in this together against the managers’ vibe that you got in the warehouse as a lowly picker. I would always feel more brain-dead coming home from the office, sometimes having lost the sense of who I was, having had to be somehow ‘not myself’ for 12 hours.

I was bought over to the transport office from the warehouse through the temp agency. They were desperate for someone to be able to fill in when one of the other transport clerks went on holiday. After my training, I was still on the minimum wage, the same as warehouse pickers, even though office jobs normally get paid a little more. This was initially justified because I was ‘training’, but after a couple of months I asked to get the same money as permanent staff, i.e. £9 an hour. The agency didn’t like it; they told me that I shouldn’t be going around ‘demanding’ things. I said I wasn’t demanding, I just wouldn’t do the job if I wasn’t getting more money. So the agency asked Wincanton on my behalf, and they agreed. Because they were desperate for someone, and they couldn’t justify paying me less than a permanent worker doing the same job, it worked out well for me.

4. Workplace divisions

Permanent and agency
There was the usual permanent and agency driver divide. While the majority of the drivers were permanent, there was always a sizeable minority of agency workers who did not get the same pay or level of training when they start the job. There was a couple of driver agencies that supplied agency drivers; one of which, called Driving Logistics, had staff and a little office space inside the warehouse. I got the impression they stuck up for ‘their’ drivers more than the temp agency who hired the warehouse pickers. There were definitely some drivers who preferred to be agency rather than permanent, either because they could make more money via some tax loophole, or they liked the flexibility. However, more often than not, they were also treated like the ‘second-tier’ workforce and weren’t getting regular shifts, which would have made their finances and ability to plan ahead more erratic. Wincanton would recruit new drivers but I am not sure how many shifted over from agency to permanent. When Wincanton did do a new round of recruitment it seemed to me that as many, if not more people were recruited from ‘outside’ rather than internally.

As far as I could make out, permanent drivers generally did not have too much of a united front with the agency drivers. There were more white British drivers that were permanent than agency drivers, although there were also quite a few Eastern European drivers who had been made permanent. Agency drivers were majority Eastern European. Some agency drivers were not very proficient in English, which made things problematic when things went wrong e.g. when drivers got lost and needed directions, or if something went wrong with the lorry and they needed help from the shunters to repair it over the phone. Often, the call would go out, “Is there anyone who speaks Bulgarian?!” And if there was, then they would act as translator.

Drivers and other staff
The drivers as part of the whole workforce would spend a lot of time in the canteen as they might have to wait for a few hours before their next delivery and weren’t allowed off-site in the meantime. They would normally sit and talk to each other and perhaps the shunters but there was always a separation between them and the rest of the warehouse workers who shared the canteen for their break.

There were often tensions that flared up between the shunters (guys who controlled the yard, moved trailers around, told drivers where to park etc. and who also sometimes worked as drivers) and office staff. E.g. the office staff would accuse the shunters of being lazy or coming into the office too much, the shunters in turn accused the office staff of being incompetent idiots who didn’t have a clue about what their job involved). The busy, and often under-valued job of the shunters also fed into why they sometimes got into arguments with some of the drivers e.g. shunters would get pissed off that a driver had been rude to them.

A lot of this was conflict about status and hierarchy. Office staff told drivers and shunters what to do; drivers often felt that they were not treated with the proper respect, that they were talked down to and bossed around by office staff who had no experience of driving, and underlying this, a lack of respect for the job they did and skill required. This outrage came most often from British-born drivers, who had probably known better pay and conditions before all of this sub-contracting lark. When the front desk (where the jobs were given out) was being run by the team of two women transport managers, the banter (and rudeness) that was possible between the men when it was two guys manning the front desk turned into an officiousness that was about maintaining boundaries of authority (which the women had to work harder to get) and limiting the potential for misunderstandings.

The chain of command went pretty high and so a big part of the sizeable layer of middle-managers’ jobs was to tell other managers slightly higher up than them what was happening. Once, when there was a huge road accident which meant we had 26 lates in one shift, I had to send a regular text message update to about 6 different managers, verbally tell two of my direct managers and inform whatever manager strolled by my desk to get the latest news. It was pretty ridiculous. One manager had to then inform another manager higher up the food chain. Generally, the managers were stressed out, knowing that if they could be blamed for something, they would be. This blame culture meant that everyone was always aware of covering their backs and people were worried about taking responsibility for stuff – it was always better to try and shift the responsibility to someone else. Not a healthy way to work!

Older timers
A lot of Wincanton warehouse staff and drivers used to work at the Feltham site. They also used to have a site in Sunbury, which was closed down. When they moved to Greenford, lots of staff followed so there were a lot of people who had a longer view of what it was like working for Wincanton e.g. how conditions had changed over the years as the company grew. There were some people who had worked there for 35 years and a lot of couples. Their grumbles based on the long-view of working there often made the atmosphere pretty demoralised.

Union divisions
A majority of the permanent drivers were in the Unite union although as far as I knew, only very few agency workers were members. There was a union representative, a white British male in his 50s, but only permanents’ issues were discussed. There was no desire to recruit agency drivers to the union, which was the union attitude across the entire warehouse, even though agency staff made up around half of the total workforce in the distribution centre as a whole. I felt that the union was taken quite seriously (by office staff and management) in the transport division – much more so than in the warehouse. E.g. the rep would openly take his facility time and go to union meetings, wear union clothing, mention the union a lot when talking to office staff. He would accompany anyone to a disciplinary meeting if they wanted and his concerns, on the surface level at least, were taken relatively seriously by the transport management.

5. Discontents

Reporting accidents
All accidents need to be reported, under a law called RIDDOR (Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013). This requires an employer to report certain work-related injuries, cases of ill health, dangerous occurrences or ‘near misses’. The one I noticed that management were particularly concerned about was those that resulted in an employee being away from work, or unable to perform their normal work duties, for more than seven consecutive days as the result of their injury. This report is then investigated by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) or local authority to see whether any health and safety regulations were breached. I heard that if Wincanton got one, then they needed to report the incident to the local authority who investigates. So everything is done to try and downgrade accidents so it doesn’t reach the ‘7-day’ point. There was a case I heard about when I was working, of a driver slipping down the stairs from the office into the yard when it was raining. He still went on his run, but afterwards his wife took him to hospital and they found out he had cracked ribs. Because this would have been a RIDDOR, Wincanton called it ‘sore ribs’ and still made him come to work, doing easier runs. One of the manners was openly complaining about how disgusting it was that the company was treating him like this, he should have been at home and getting sick pay, not coming into work and somehow doing them a favour. The company had obviously put pressure on the driver to do this. I heard of other cases where senior managers would make home visits to drivers off sick or with an injury to put pressure on them to come back to work.

Incorrect pay
Lots of the permanent drivers seemed to have issues with their pay being calculated incorrectly. Their shift times would be electronically calculated as they had to clock-in through the biometric system (thumb print). Many drivers made sure they kept a diary of their exact hours to match this up against as their wages were often underpaid. Drivers often came to see the transport shift manager every week to sort this out, which shows how unreliable the technology actually was.

Clocking on
If workers clocked in more than three minutes after their shift start time, they would lost their first fifteen minutes of their pay.

Having holidays refused was a common cause for complaint, especially amongst the office staff. This was because it was more difficult to find cover because of the way the teams were organised. Because the warehouse was a 24-hour operation, the transport office was split into 4 teams – 2 day shift teams and 2 night shift teams. Both worked 12-hour shifts, four days on, four days off. Apparently this was the most cost-efficient way of organising things but was problematic when it came to arranging cover. There were lots of grumbles about getting holidays refused e.g. the guy in charge of parking tickets and violations said he was on £19,000 a year and had his holidays refused when someone else on £26,000 wasn’t. Favouritism probably had a lot to do with the inconsistency.

Management incompetence and efficiency drives
Lots of drivers at Wincanton were disgruntled and regularly slagged off the transport shift/managers. The main complaint was that they were talking out of their arses, basically that they didn’t have a clue what they were doing because they had never had any actual lorry driver experience. If you look at driver forums on the internet, this is a very common complaint amongst drivers. One shift manager in particular at the Sainsbury’s/Wincanton depot was just looking to get ahead. This meant trying to impress the upper management by being ‘efficient’ and squeezing drivers more. Once he had proved himself he could go somewhere else, higher up the food chain. But in the meantime, it meant drivers were used as a means to further his career.

However, the big cheese of the transport department actually was an ex-driver who had worked his way up. But that did not work out in the drivers’ favour either. He knew all the ‘tricks’ and was seen as using this knowledge against the drivers to squeeze more out of them. Most of the drivers I spoke to were united in their hatred for this short- arsed bruiser!

The targets involved – reaching the store on time and getting back on time – were all noted and monitored by management. There was a lot of paperwork for the drivers to fill out: vehicle checklists, temperature checks, delivery papers. To safeguard against drivers stealing or tampering with the stock, the back of the lorry was ‘sealed’ with a special number, and this number was double-checked by the store on arrival. The big cheese of the transport department also undertook secret spot-checks to make sure drivers were following the correct procedures when they arrived at the store. He would hide in the bushes, and spy on drivers, making sure they followed procedures such as ‘using the straps’ that secured the cages as the tail-lift was being lowered onto street/pavement level. If you were caught not following these rules, your hairy ass was hauled into a disciplinary meeting.

There were normally 3 or 4 shunters on one shift. They were mostly white British, there was one white European, one Somalian and occasionally one Indian. There was often discontent – either because they were being accused of laziness, or they felt that they were being squeezed between demands from the warehouse on one side and transport office on the other. Shunters thought that management wanted to reduce the number of hours a shunter could work on each shift with the intention of reducing the number of shunters working on each shift. The shunters thought this would make their jobs even more dangerous but when they expressed their concern, were told they were just being paranoid.

Because of the chain of command that included lots of middle-managers, and the blame culture that pervaded the company at this level, office staff especially would be reluctant to make any individual decisions. There was always endless deferments higher up the chain, or delegation downwards; nobody wanted to take responsibility in case they would be taken to task further down the line. It bred a feeling of having to always cover your own back, which didn’t inspire much confidence.

One day some manager from on high suddenly decided that the target time for deliveries would be 45 minutes instead of one hour after 7am. This went back and forth all morning, nobody seemed to know whether to stick to it or not, the usual chaotic nonsense where nobody could make up their mind…

Working time directive and swapping jobs
Even though there are laws in place to limit the number of hours drivers work, the hours are still long and 12, 13 hour shifts were not unusual. Weekend working was standard, as were 2am or 4am start times, so work/life balance was pretty difficult. Some drivers were allowed to swap their designated jobs amongst each other, sometimes not. It depended on who was on the front desk and their personal rapport with the driver in question as to whether this was allowed. When drivers weren’t accommodated, they would sometimes kick up a fuss.

6. Supply and demand

In the bigger operations like delivering for the big supermarkets like Sainsbury’s, drivers often get better conditions than other sections of warehouse workers: they are often male (in fact, there were no women drivers at all at the Wincanton Greenford depot); the majority of permanent drivers are unionised (whereas for example, many of the pickers are not); and they tend to stick together and have better pay and conditions than other workers in the supply chain. These last two points are are obviously related to each other. The long hours and weekend work is one of the reasons why it will be difficult to recruit women with children to the job – something that would probably be necessary to tackle the shortage of ‘home-grown’ drivers in the UK – current estimates are that the UK will need an extra 150,000 drivers by 2020. Even with increasing numbers of Eastern European drivers working in Britain, this shortfall remains. Why?

Firstly, the growth of the logistics sector has meant more drivers are needed. Road haulage has been preferable to supermarkets over rail since the government started to run down the railway network in the 1960s. Now, transporting goods by rail, even though cheaper than road, requires long-term contract commitments, which the supermarkets don’t want to do because of their periods of decreased activity. Yet supply of drivers has not been able to keep up with demand.

Secondly, the bureaucracy and training required is not seen as worthwhile, seeing as thirdly (and probably most importantly) the pay and conditions are getting worse. Driving is a skilled job, requiring a special HGV licence and regular training hours (CPC) that have to be renewed every 5 years (which also costs £400). The initial investment upwards of £2000 (minus the ongoing training) so will be prohibitively expensive for some. If the prospect for a new driver is a wage of £9-10 an hour, there is little reason to think the initial investment will reap rewards later. The average age of a LGV driver in the UK is 53, 13% are over 60 and only 2% are under 25. New and young people are desperately needed to fill the gap, but it is not seen as an attractive job what with the long hours, weekend work and worsening pay and conditions. When drivers have their licence, normally companies want at least 2 years experience before they hire you, so new drivers are stuck. Also, for insurance reasons most companies only hire people over 25.

Many drivers have become disillusioned and demoralised with all the over zealous rules, regulations, health and safety and fines that characterise this type of work. With drivers mainly working for subcontracted logistics companies rather than directly for employers e.g. Sainsbury’s, things have only gotten worse. There have been a number of strikes by unionised drivers who have found themselves in these subcontracted arrangements (see Eddie Stobart dispute below).

7. Monitoring, surveillance, bureaucracy and health and safety

Because drivers are out on the road most of the time, management needs more innovative methods to keep an eye on them. Not so luckily, technology is there to help!

There is the driver’s ‘digicard’ (also known as the digital tachograph card), which stores data like speed and distance a driver travels, together with a driver’s activity for example when they take a break etc. This effectively keeps tabs on drivers to ensure they’re complying with the European Working Time Directive. When drivers had finished their shift, they had to do a driver de-brief with a member of the transport office team – basically we were supposed to check their digicard to see if it matched up with their reams of paperwork.

There is driver behaviour software – e.g. fuel and driving efficiency can be monitored by devices inside the lorry. This effectively records if you go over the speed limit by 2 MPH or corner too fast, or do an emergency stop for whatever reason. Two of the lorries had also been fitted with software that ‘spoke’ to the driver and signalled to the driver using noises. Most drivers found this pretty distracting and annoying.

But this software is not failsafe. There was a dispute in May 2015 by 300 engineering service workers at Kone, a multinational elevator company, against driver software. [2] It was being used to verify time-sheets and site arrival and leaving times – even though the information it was collecting was unreliable. A union spokesperson said:

“Evidence has shown the mileage recorded by VAMS [vehicle access management system] for business or private use is not accurate and exaggerates the amount of mileage being completed. It is ‘a spy in the cab’ that does not function properly, so it is understandable that our members are angry. This will lead to employees being wrongly assessed for private mileage, and could lead to wrong deductions from wages and ultimately disciplinary situations.”
The 2-week strike was called off a few days in when a deal was reached – basically safeguard measures were drawn up to make sure inaccurate information wouldn’t be used. It is interesting to note that the software is still being used and the union stated that it wasn’t against the principal of VAMS when used for health and safety purposes. But the fact is, most of this driver software and cab technology is being used and legitimised under the guise of health and safety – when the convenient side- effect of monitoring and surveillance is probably more of an incentive. After all, driver shifts that are normally between 12 and 14 hours probably has more of an effect on ‘driver safety’ in terms of fatigue but this is rarely a cause for management’s concern and intervention. While trucks have been equipped with GPS systems and devices to control speed, the latest generation of surveillance technology is more far-reaching in scope. The main reason it is being developed is to drive productivity and make sure drivers are complying with regulations that if not adhered to, can cost the companies a lot of money in fines. It’s the operator-monitoring systems that are the most controversial e.g. cameras inside the cab facing the driver to see if a driver is slacking off or making unauthorized stops. [3] Because there would be an uproar if these were introduced en masse, they are brought in stealthily and under the pretext of ‘health and safety’. It is harder to argue for ‘privacy’ on the job when it is argued that cameras could be used to ascertain causes of fatal accidents – of which HGVs are involved in over half (52%) of cases despite HGVs only making up 10% of the traffic on motorways.

Yard shunters at the Sainsbury’s/Wincanton depot had also been subjected to software to make them more ‘efficient’ in early 2014. It told them where to go and what to do next. But the shunters found it frustrating, especially when it did not take into account certain things that a human being would e.g. it would tell you to go to a certain bay to move a trailer but did not factor in the fact that you may have had to go back to the office to fetch the keys first. This probably meant that there were targets/ time restrictions for the actions suggested by the software, that couldn’t be complied with in real life. I heard that the shunters had protested, saying that they would all quit if unless the software was taken away. After 2-3 months, the software was taken away. But the threat of it being reintroduced in the future was looming…

And of course, there was my job: tracking them and their lorry when they were on the road doing their deliveries. You weren’t allowed to phone drivers while they were driving but this was sometimes done. Drivers would get pissed off, knowing you were checking up on them, but the chain of command always put pressure on you to put pressure on them…

European legislation and sector-wide training
Drivers are subject to the specific rules governing how long they’re allowed to work. While on the surface this looks like good news for drivers, it has also allowed initiatives and surveillance technology to be used to monitor adherence to these rules. So the two things are linked: rules to supposedly make driver’s work and conditions better, and controlling mechanisms that put the driver under more scrutiny. E.g. after the threats of Wincanton tanker drivers to go on strike in the UK, an agreement was cooked up between the bosses and unions that was meant to ensure the ‘health and safety’ of drivers through a driver training ‘passport’, which has to be renewed every five years with a refresher every year. The stated aim was to keep cowboys out of the game and keep standards high and standardised across the sector. But it also is another way of monitoring drivers and controlling the industry – now, they know how many tanker drivers there are, and how many they would need to cover tanker strikes in the future. Only drivers who are already employed by a company can access this training, so troublemakers may find it difficult to get back into the industry if for example, they have been blacklisted.

The European Working Time Directive is another example. In Europe, drivers are legally required to accurately record their activities, retain the records and produce them on demand to transport authorities and companies who are charged with enforcing regulations governing drivers’ working hours. Drivers and their trade unions initially opposed the use of tachographs and digicards because they feared that employers would examine the records and reduce the driver’s pay for any time stopped, even if the stop was for a good reason, such as checking the vehicle or going to the toilet. This would encourage tired drivers to continue driving rather than rest, and encourage drivers to exceed speed limits in order to reach their destination within the required time. However, nowadays, they are looked on more favourably, as they are seen to prevent unfair competition from companies who force their (usually implicitly ‘foreign’) drivers to work excessive hours. Tacograph records are also often used in tribunals as proof when claiming for unpaid work. However, it has been known for drivers to have two digicards and work for two different companies, so there are still ways to circumvent the system. And their use hasn’t actually stopped pay and conditions from worsening, although at least now, you can make more of a case for not just blaming ‘foreign cowboys’ who work their drivers longer. Mostly though, tachograph data, once collected, provides valuable data to the haulage company. For instance, efficiency of driver and vehicle use, driver shift patterns, compliance with internal policy, payment of agency drivers, proof of collection/delivery times, etc. [4]

8. General background info on the Heavy Goods Vehicle (HGV) sector

There are roughly 285,000 HGV drivers in the UK (2014) and in 2013 around 470,000 registered HGV vehicles roamed the streets, plus 3.5 million light goods vehicles (under 3.5 t). There has been a big increase in light goods vehicles (delivery vans etc.) since 2004, no doubt reflecting the boom in e-commerce and online supermarket shopping. In the UK, 151 billion tonne kilometres (BTK) of freight are transported by road vehicles, compared to 19 billion tonne kilometres by rail. Over the last two decades this ratio has been fairly stable, the big increase in road transport took place between mid-1980s and early 1990s (plus 50 billion tonne kilometres). Amongst the trucks (plus 3.5 t), the category with the biggest increase in terms of moved goods are ‘articulated vehicles’ (trucks with trailers) over 33 tons capacity, the biggest category of trucks. In 2011 these trucks transported 104 BTK out of total 139 BTK transported by trucks.

Currently there is a debate going on about whether ‘monster trucks’ (82ft trucks) should be allowed in the UK. Critics raise concerns about road safety: an HGV is five times more likely to be involved in a fatal accident on a minor road than other traffic. Whether this is due to size or due to stressed and tired drivers is a different question. The other problem with big trucks is ‘efficient use’. Similar to the mega-container ships they cruise around half empty most of the time: recent figures show almost a third of HGV kilometres driven were without a load, when they could have been carrying on average 10.4 tonnes of goods, or approximately 26,000 cans of standard baked beans, per truck. The centralisation of warehouses and the increase in size of trucks will aggravate this problem. In fact, some supermarkets are starting to make contracts with other supermarkets to take their stock just to avoid travelling without an empty vehicle.

The composition of haulage companies and drivers has changed significantly, in particular due to the expansion of the EU labour-market and the promotion of self-employment by the UK government. Between 2000 and 2010 goods transported to EU by UK registered vehicles decreased from 7,000 to 5,000 thousand tonnes. This decline is less due to a decline in UK export, though the sharpest decrease is in machinery, but the fact that now foreign registered trucks do more of the job of international transportation. In 2004, trucks registered in Poland lifted 674 thousand tonnes of goods from the UK. By 2010 this figure had increased to 3,250 thousand tonnes. A similar increase when it comes to goods transported to the UK: vehicles registered in Poland transported 983 thousand tonnes in 2004 and 4,300 thousand tonnes in 2010. The haulage industry becomes more international, which is reflected in some of the disputes below.

A similarly international phenomena is the large amount of small transport companies and self-employed drivers. In the UK, the Road Haulage Association (RHA) represents some 9,000 member companies operating over 100,000 vehicles. A significant number of members employ 10 or fewer staff. In general, most freight operators, 87 per cent, employ fewer than 10 people and own an average of four vehicles. Only 55 road haulage companies in the UK employ more than 250 workers. Again, statistics are a minefield: many drivers are now employed by agencies and many of these agencies – which are not registered as haulage companies – employ more than 250 people. A thorough analysis of the actual conditions would be necessary to better understand the background of current disputes.

9. Disputes

The left is quick in saying that ‘post-fordist’ workers are all individualised and that there is no ‘workplace’ as such, but various disputes of truck drivers, in particular in France and Spain, have shown that they have found various forms of organising: at truck-stops and service stations, company and warehouse yards, radios on the trucks, online forums. Their forms of struggle relate directly to their position in the circulation and production process, e.g. through strategical blockades of fuel depots and industrial zones. At the same time the relationship between ‘self-employed drivers’ and ‘small transport companies’ tends to be arbitrary; some protests are backed by the ‘transport lobby’ of the employers’ association to put pressure on the state, e.g. to lower taxes or fuel prices. These protests might include both workers, self-employed drivers and bosses, but the alliance is fragile, as the examples below demonstrate. We first summarise some of the international disputes and then look at the Wincanton tanker strike and more recent struggles in the UK.

*** Big truck drivers’ strikes in France and Spain 1996/97

These were the biggest protests of truck drivers under the new conditions of precarious contracts and self-employment. Both protest movements started with transport companies/employers first raising their own demands, e.g. concerning taxes and fuel prices. Some of the self-employed truck drivers joined these protests, but then it became about wider workers’ issues. Waged truck-drivers of the bigger logistics companies then joined the strike.

* France, November 1996
The initial protest for lower fuel prices quickly turned into a mobilisation for a five years earlier retirement age (to 55 years), wage increase or paid waiting times, e.g. during loading or at transit stations. The truckers’ unions formally backed the protest, but only about 10 per cent of the 320,000 or so truck drivers in France were unionised. Truckers largely coordinated informally and blockaded strategic points, such as fuel depots or ports (Calais). Within a week the number of blockades increased to 250 all over France, 2,000 petrol stations ran out of petrol and automobile and food production companies started sending workers home due to lack of supply. In Spain 1,000 trucks loaded with fruit were blocked. According to surveys a majority of people supported the drivers’ demands and in many cases practically helped the workers at the barricades. The government negotiated a compromise with the unions, which lowered the retirement age to 57 and a half (!) years, granted a small wage increase and a bonus which basically covered the loss of income during the strike days.

* Spain, February 1997
The conditions in Spain were more precarious than in France. At the time about 75 per cent of the 250,000 truck-drivers were self-employed. The truckers in Spain felt encouraged by the movement in France and put forward similar demands and used similar forms of struggles, e.g. strategically blocking access roads to big factories or depots. The state reacted more violently and Guardia Civil (para-military cops) and the police attacked blockades and escorted trucks, in particular those supplying to industry. Despite the repression, most car factories in Spain came to a halt after one week, automobile companies tried to get parts through via helicopters and taxis. After about two weeks their blockades affected the international supply-chain and car factories in Germany had to reduce production due to lack of parts from Spain. There were also reports about scuffles between striking truck drivers and other truckers, so the official union figure of 80 per cent participation might have been exaggerated. After two weeks the impact on the international industry became pressing and the union FEDATRANS called the blockades off after the government compromised, e.g. they cancelled all legal charges against strike and blockade participants. Shortly after, truckers in Portugal started a similar movement.

*** Fuel depot blockades in the UK, September 2000

In September 2000 transport companies, farmers and truckers started blockading various fuel depots and refineries all over the country, protesting against the increase in fuel prices. Some elements in the Tory party initially mobilised for the protest, which then took on its’ own dynamic. The high percentage of self-employed truck-drivers in the UK explains the massive expansion of the protest, which ended up closing 3,000 petrol stations due to lack of supply. The government had to provide military tankers as replacements. Government figures stated that the protests cost the UK economy £250 million a day. In his pre-Budget report of 8 November 2000, the Chancellor at the time, Gordon Brown, announced numerous changes to lower taxes for ‘local drivers and companies’, and which included the taxing of foreign lorries using British roads. Again, we see the clear attempt to play ‘local’ and ‘foreign’ drivers off against each other.

*** Recent European drivers dispute

Compared to the blockades in France and Spain in the mid 1990s the current protests seem rather tame. The expansion of the EU to the east has re-composed the sector drastically. The novelty is, that they address the EU administration and that symbolically, at least, they have a more international character, but the ‘east/west divide’ is apparent, e.g. when a) transport bosses in Poland mobilise their workers to protest against the minimum wage in Germany, saying that they would be put out of business if they have to pay this wage to their drivers when they cross ‘German territory’ or b) workers in Belgium protest against the employment of eastern europeans in the transport sector. Below some examples.

* Protest in Brussels, October 2012

Some 750 truck-drivers, flanked by lorries, slowed traffic in Brussels in a protest over declining wages and conditions as transport companies hire east Europeans on rock-bottom pay. The European Transport Workers’ Federation, which called the rally, urged European institutions and governments to agree legislation respecting the rights of professional road transport drivers. “The job is changing,” said Patrice Huart, who heads a French drivers’ union, the FGTE. “There are less and less French drivers because firms are taking on drivers from eastern Europe who are paid 250 euros a month, or 700 with bonuses, against 2,000 for a western European.”

* Protest in Berlin, May 2014

Several hundred lorry drivers demonstrated in Berlin against low wages in Europe. The demonstration was part of protests in a number of European cities, including Oslo, The Hague, Copenhagen and Madrid. The initiative was organised by various professional bodies, including the German Lorry Drivers Club. At the rally in Berlin, there was no sign of the Ver.di trade union or any of the other unions affiliated to the German trade union confederation (DGB). There are more than a million lorry drivers are on the road in Germany every day. Most of them have to cope with extreme time pressure, low wages and ruthless competition resulting from the European Union’s (EU’s) liberalisation policy.

* Protest against Ikea in Belgium, August 2014

Dutch and Belgian truck drivers protested the loss of jobs at contractors serving Ikea, the world’s largest furniture chain, accusing the Swedish company of exploiting cheaper workers from Eastern Europe.

* Protest in Poland against binding German minimum wage, March 2015

The minimum wage of EUR 8.50 an hour in Germany, significantly higher than the Polish equivalent, has been challenged by governments including that of Poland, on the grounds that it breaks EU laws on the free movement of goods and people. However a decision is yet to be reached by the European Commission (EC), and in the meantime the minimum wage is being applied to most Polish drivers operating in Germany. In March 2015 protests took place across Poland including 200 lorries blocking a cargo terminal at Koroszczyn (near Belarus), 80 to 130 lorries drove on a motorway near Szczecin (north-west Poland), and ten trucks drove in protest near Rzeszów (south-eastern Poland). Anna Wrona, spokeswoman for the Polish branch of the Association of International Road Transport Carriers, explained that, “The consequences of the German minimum wage, which must be respected by Polish trucking companies which are sending their drivers onto German territory, will make these companies bankrupt in the near future.”

a) Wincanton tanker strike

Between January and May 2012, newspapers covered an ongoing dispute between Wincanton and tanker drivers organised in UNITE, worried about cuts to pay and conditions as the result of oil companies outsourcing their oil transportation work. The oil company, ConocoPhillips’ had contracted Wincanton to do its’ distribution. Workers were told by Wincanton that if they didn’t sign up to a new contract, that ConocoPhillips’ could split the contract and TUPE may not apply to protect their pay and conditions. The new contracts would have resulted in a 20% pay cut. Workers wanted ConocoPhillips to guarantee that they would abide by TUPE if they ended or fragmented the Wincanton contract. Wincanton’s 5-year contract ended in June so drivers were also on a rolling 6-month contract, which meant they could be given notice at any time. Having just seen ConocoPhillips give their office staff at the Immingham refinery depot 90 days notice, the drivers were understandably worried about their futures. They wanted Wincanton to negotiate three-year contracts with ConocoPhillips to give drivers extra job security.

Over the years oil companies have outsourced deliveries to third party hauliers and the drivers now drive for them. Originally the oil companies used to give out 10-year contracts to the hauliers, but it’s slowly been eroded to three or four-year contracts. New bids then have to be made, each one more competitive than the other companies vying for the same contract. This inevitably means squeezing more and more out of the drivers. So this struggle was indicative of a wider problem across the industry: Total, Fina and Elf were threatening to do the same thing when their contracts ended in that same year. This was why Unite were demanding a “minimum standard” agreement across the industry. In early 2011, Unite launched the ‘Enough is Enough’ campaign demanding minimum industry-wide standards, to be negotiated by a national forum involving the sector’s main companies. A number of major distributors agreed to set up an industry forum but refused to give it a bargaining role or deal with pay. The employers did, however, agree to discuss pensions, health and safety standards and training. The demands being put forward from Unite, which would have had far-reaching effects across the whole industry, as well as the fact that these drivers were responsible for delivering over 6,500,000 litres of fuel a year across the UK and had to the power to stop the supply the petrol, meant that the stakes were pretty high.

So at 5am on 24th January 2012, over 120 oil tanker drivers on the ConocoPhillips contract (who were delivering fuel to Jet forecourts) began a week-long strike, affecting three of the major fuel distribution depots: in Kingsbury (in Warwickshire), Stockton-on-Tees and the biggest on Immingham docks (in Lincolnshire), where nearly all the 86 drivers and fitters manned picket lines in and out of the refinery depot. A second week-long strike after this was also announced.

On Friday 3rd Feb 2012, drivers began their second week of strike action but the strike was suspended the next morning in a tactical move which called on Wincanton and ConocoPhillips to enter into meaningful talks. If these are not forthcoming, then notice had already been served of another 7 days strike action starting on Thursday 9th February.

At the end of March 2012, 2,000 drivers across seven fuel distribution companies, – BP, DHL, Hoyer, JW Suckling,Norbert Dentressangle, Turners and Wincanton- voted in favour of industrial action against “unrelenting attacks” on drivers’ terms and conditions, as well as health and safety standards. Drivers of these seven companies supply 90% of the petrol for UK petrol stations. The threatened walkout would be in the Easter break and effectively close nearly 8,000 petrol stations, including J. Sainsbury PLC, Tesco PLC, Asda Group Ltd, Esso and Royal Dutch Shell. This announcement, as well as the government’s inflammatory talk, led to widespread panic-buying of petrol, with many filling stations running out of fuel, even though Unite had not even set a date for strike action.

The government then announced that army personnel were being trained to step in and drive the tankers to maintain essential supplies if the strike went ahead. Other contingency plans were touted e.g. bringing in foreign hauliers to keep tankers moving. This rhetoric was ratcheted up when the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition said they were preparing a major strikebreaking operation involving 300 military tanker drivers and police squads to break up any blockades of oil refineries. One military base was said to be on stand-by at the Ashchurch Army Barracks, Gloucestershire, which was used in a previous strike-breaking operation. Energy Secretary Ed Davey said he would take “whatever action” necessary to defeat a strike, including “emergency powers.”

At the beginning of April talks began through the reconciliation organisation, Acas. Proposals that were drawn up were roundly rejected by the union membership. More proposals were written up and in May, a narrow overall majority (51%) of members backed the deal, although it was rejected by a majority of drivers at four of the seven companies. At no point did the union bring together the dispute of Wincanton workers with workers at Coryton refinery that was being threatened with closure at the same time.

Unite called off the threatened strike. It is telling that the government’s contingency plans should a strike have gone ahead would still only have ensured a 10% delivery of petrol and this would only really have been to emergency services – meaning: it was not the overbearing power of the state to replace striking workers that made the union back down…

While the details of the settlement are not publicly displayed, it clearly fell short of the national minimum standards sought by Unite. What was agreed was an industry-wide accreditation scheme, or ‘passport’, covering health and safety standards and training. Other provisions reportedly included greater involvement of the Health and Safety Executive, a possible framework to allow drivers to transfer their training and pensions between employers, and an employer-funded ‘benchmarking study’ of terms and conditions across the sector. On first sight this makes things easier for the individual driver, but it also means that thanks to the standardisation of certification and documentation of work history drivers can be more easily shifted between companies. The employers also, according to Unite, gave assurances on longer contracts and improved terms – but there were no specifics.

The rhetoric changed from the beginning to the end of the struggle. At the beginning, the union was emphasising the role of sub-contracting arrangements and the undermining of drivers’ pay and conditions, leading to their demand for a collective wage agreement. In retaliation, Wincanton and management tried to paint their drivers as ‘privileged’ workers, same as is done with ‘overpaid Tube drivers’. They bandied around a figure of £45,000 without overtime for their driver’s salaries, which was reported in most news articles afterwards. Even though this was proven to be a gross overestimate (a fact-check was done by Channel 4, which discovered that in actual fact, it was more like £35,000 before overtime [5]), it was probably seen to be damaging to the union’s campaign, especially as the average British salary is about £10,000 less. Rather than tackle this head on, they decided on a strategy of deflection, veering away from the pay issue and more into the health and safety issue. The settlement led to the introduction of the Petroleum Driver Passport, which could then be seen as a victory of sorts. Strategically it also worked because the health and safety issue could be used as a pretext for erecting higher levels of entry that sought to address the ‘unfair competition’ angle by retaining a more ‘privileged’ workforce and by making it harder to employ ‘outsiders’ – something many truckers (e.g. on forums like regularly complain about. The revived Downstream Oil Industry Distribution Forum is now only concerned with issues concerning driver health, safety and training.

And in the end it seemed that the government was able to turn the strike (threat) into good business: It was estimated that the panic buying brought in £32 million in fuel excise duty [6].

b) Eddie Stobart/Tesco drivers, Doncaster, 2012

Eddie Stobart is a nasty big haulage company, e.g. the UK army used them to move tonnes of military hardware to bases in Italy for potential use during the war in Libya in 2011. No wonder that major retailers like Tesco want to outsource their transport and warehouse operations to such a corporation. This is what happened in August 2012. In Doncaster, former Tesco drivers were confronted with a choice: either accept redundancy with 90 days notice or new contracts paying £2.50 less per hour. The 180 drivers decided to go on strike instead, focusing their action on the local Tesco warehouse where they were employed, trying to blockade the truck traffic. The union first organised a one-day strike in early October 2012, followed by a three-day strike at the end of the month. The police initially did not intervene, but under legal pressure the union decided to ease the blockade. Trucks could go in and out, though with a delay. During the strike Eddie Stobart Ltd. had to employ a scab-company, Taylors, to keep the operation going. After the strikes showed little impact, an unlimited strike was called in December. The following report is from the fifth day of strike, 10th of December 2010:

“Following a demonstration on Saturday through the town where afterwards strikers had blocked one of the entrances for around 45 minutes, they decided to up the ante and moved en masse into the both the entrance and exit from the depot, refusing to let lorries pass through. The result was perhaps 100 lorries parked up almost anywhere nearby possible whilst the police were called to try a negotiate getting some of them into the depot. This action will have hit Tesco hard, reports from workers in the warehouse coming off shift at 2pm spoke of hardly having any pallets left in the warehouse.”

It seems that this pressure did not last too long, as on the 14th of December drivers voted by 150-19 to accept an improved redundancy offer and end their strike after an ‘improved redundancy package’: “whilst still only £650 for each years service, was 50% better than that drivers had been notified of only a day earlier in their redundancy letters.” The local Socialist Party activist continued to comment:

“The union branch committee reluctantly recommended acceptance of the deal. They thought it was the best that could be got under the circumstances. Even those that voted against did so more as a gesture of defiance than challenging the shop stewards who have shown real leadership. This is because whilst the talks were going on yesterday, the pendulum swung away from the strikers on the picket line. Up to then, the police had been unusually accommodating, allowing pickets to stop lorries and talk to drivers for 5, 10, sometimes even 20 minutes or more, causing even more tail-backs. But around midday, more senior officers demanded a more robust attitude to limiting the picket numbers and together with Stobart and Tesco managers, more or less forced drivers through. This meant that by mid-afternoon the back-log of wagons had more or less been cleared.”

The legal battle and symbolic actions by the ex-drivers against unfair dismissals continued till January 2015 when Unite brokered a final compensation deal with the company. We can say that the initial strikes were one of the few offensive reactions of workers against the wide-spread trend of outsourcing and blackmailing, but the blockades seemed too weak, the relation with the warehouse workers too superficial and other potentials of expansion of the dispute not explored enough, e.g. Eddie Stobart workers in other places were in dispute during that period. In Northern Ireland in February 2012 Stobart/Tesco workers through SIPTU balloted for strike over excessive working times.

c) ‘Spy in the cab’

As mentioned earlier, in April 2015 about 300 engineering service workers, employed by the lift firm Kone, went on strike today in a dispute over a tracker device in their vehicles, which their union, Unite, says is an unreliable method for measuring workloads.

Unite said that the device should not be used to verify time sheets, and site arrival and leaving times as it is unreliable – for example, one driver was alleged have driven 1,000 miles in one day – without refuelling. The union is not against the principle the ‘spy in the cab’ for health and safety purposes. The workers service lifts, doors and escalators across the UK, including at Gatwick and Heathrow airports. As well as the days of strike action, they instituted an overtime ban and a ban on call and night-time call-outs.

At the end of May, an agreement had not been reached so a two-week strike was called. One week into the strike, a deal was reached that apparently provided mechanisms to ensure that the spying device accurately records and measures the workloads of the employees. There was no detail of what this meant in practice. But it is clear that they are still being used.

10. Conclusions

Tanker drivers have potentially more power than regular HGV drivers due to their specialist skills and the requirement of an individual qualification/permission to drive dangerous goods. But drivers in general, in particular within the supermarket chains, can develop similar collective power – in particular if they link up with the warehouse crews, food production workers or supermarket staff. In the case of warehouse staff, one of the first problems to overcome would be where these groups of workers actually meet. Drivers often have their own waiting areas so mixing with other warehouse workers is tricky. While they can meet supermarket staff when they make their deliveries, getting to know other warehouse workers at their own warehouse would mean breaking out of the driver ghetto in shared spaces like the canteen. As conditions worsen across the board – for drivers, office permanents and warehouse agency staff – our only chance, if we don’t just want to make very small and symbolic actions – is to do something together. The union, which, in our experience maintains these dividing lines between different groups of workers, won’t be proactive in this.

There is a temptation to have a protectionist attitude when you see increasing numbers of foreign drivers across transport depots across the UK at the same time that pay and conditions are nosediving. But in a context where migration of EU labour liberalisation extending eastwards, driver training being less prohibitively expensive in Eastern European countries, and with young British people having little interest in such low paid, long-hours jobs, it is no wonder new groups end up filling the gap. Unions have agreed to increasing levels of training – even though it means more hoops to jump through and more surveillance for existing workers – as a way to appease their members, worried about unfair competition from newer European countries. In the long-term, this strategy won’t work as long as European borders remain open for member countries. The drivers’ struggles across Europe show that discontent is mainly centred in the ‘western’ countries and often is towards the ‘Eastern European under-cutters’. Unless this equalises, it will be hard for struggles to gain common support transnationally. But in a situation where Eastern European drivers decide to live more permanently in the UK the dynamics will surely change to challenge the divisions that currently exist.

The role of the unions in reigning in struggles in the examples above are plain to see. But in light of the transient nature of driving and the different status of drivers, whether they be permanent, agency or self-employed, unions obviously serve a function of bringing this disparate group of workers together. The limitations of these struggles have also been apparent. The fight against sub-contracting, weekend work, stress etc. is one that is relevant to many other groups of workers, not least the warehouse workers who occupy the same geographical space. But there is often a resistance to put yourself in the same category as ‘unskilled’ manual workers, when the job you do is valued higher (even if it is not reflected in the pay). But unless these attitudes are challenged, groups of workers normally reach an impasse in their own specific struggles.



[2] For more information about this dispute: