Friday 6 March 2015. Truck drivers from across eastern Europe arrive on minibuses in Žiar nad Hronom, a town in central Slovakia. They are workers for Bring Trucking, the Slovak subsidiary of the Norwegian state-owned giant, Posten Norge.
The company’s Slovak office operates as the hub for hiring drivers to deliver goods along the highways of north and west Europe, including Norway, in vehicles weighing as much as 40 tonnes. This skilled job requires specialized knowledge of health and safety, due to the dangers of hauling such massive loads. Norway’s roads are especially treacherous in the winter.
But what the drivers are about to experience is shocking.
Those who pass through the Žiar nad Hronom office in west Slovakia usually spend a few hours filling in paperwork before another minibus picks them up and takes them to where their trucks are parked.
However, this day is different. Under law, the drivers must take road safety training to prove their knowledge of vital issues of road security. So they will face a test.
The exam takes place in a classroom, where the drivers sit at desks arranged in rows facing the examiner. Each of them has a single sheet of paper containing a multi-choice questionnaire that features the Bring logo, but no questions.
The drivers should be trained by a specialist instructor before they take the test, which is in English. But the instructor is late. Also, not all the drivers can speak English well. Neither of these seems to bother Bring Trucking. They have a solution.
At the front of the room sits a young woman, dressed in black, an employee of the company.
“10b, 11a, 12a, 13b, 14c…,” she says, in a Slovak accent. She is dictating the answers. The men respond by ticking the correct boxes.
In the middle of this charade, Lucian Mititelu, a Romanian driver from Iași, pulls out his mobile phone and starts recording.
“She gave us a form with numbers and letters,” Mititelu says today. “Then she dictated the answers to questions that we did not even have. We had to circle the letters while she read.”
Later in the film, we see the instructor finally arrive and give his lesson to the crowd in Slovak. The same woman who gave away the answers minutes earlier now translates his words into English.
“It’s clear that [Bring Trucking] only wanted our signature and were not interested in anyone’s safety,” Mititelu argues.
The Romanian drove 40-tonne vehicles for the company between 2012 and 2015, usually a route between the Netherlands and Sweden, but often in Norway.
Bogus tests like the one shown in the video were “common” during his employment, he says. “The longer I stayed, the more I realized I had to document what was going on.”
When we interview Tore Ketil Nilsen, Bring’s executive vice-president, he stresses how much the company invests in drivers’ training, such as teaching them how to tackle roads in harsh weather conditions.
We then confront Nilsen with the video evidence. “I am of course surprised by information like this...” he says. “Of course this is not our standard; this is not the way we operate”.
His press officer, John Eckhoff, replied in writing to a formal request for comment about the poor training practices, saying, “We are not satisfied with the routine where the answers are being read at the end of the course.”
Eckhoff adds that Bring has “reported this breach to the Slovak National Labour Inspectorate, and we are ending the cooperation with the external course supplier.” .
We also discovered that, as we went to press, the woman in the video who dictated the answers still works for Bring.
The Norwegian company insists that it has a whistleblower service. Mititelu, however, claims that during his time at the company, he used the whistleblower service to alert the management to several misdemeanours. ”I did not receive any answer to this email nor the next,” he says.
Mititelu left the company following disputes with the management.
Bring Trucking is the Slovak subsidiary of the Posten Norge Group, the ‘Norway Post’, the official postal service of Norway owned by the Ministry of Trade and Industry. Bring has 300 trucks and 390 Eastern European drivers, who operate mostly in Nordic countries, often for six consecutive weeks at a time, and are paid a Slovak salary, about one-sixth of a Norwegian driver’s.
Most of the drivers working for Bring come from countries in Eastern Europe, like Romania, where the wages are cheaper. A growing number hail from Serbia and some from Bulgaria. The problem with outsourcing trucking jobs to cheaper drivers from the east is that few of them can understand what is written on their payslips, which are in Slovak.
There is a pattern of east European drivers working on west European roads, but paid an east European salary. Unions argue this is evidence of social dumping, the practice of companies using cheaper labor than is available where their operations are based, and then paying less than western drivers for the same work.
In Norway, heavy trucks from outside the country are twice as likely to be involved in collisions as those from Norway, according to a survey from the Norwegian Institute for Transport Economics in 2016. The main risk is the drivers’ lack of experience on Norwegian roads in winter.
It is “very serious” that a company owned by the state operates in this way, says Morten Hagen, a secretary with the Norwegian Transport Workers' Union, after seeing the video. “It is reprehensible that Bring - time and again - ends up in such issues. They are probably neither the best nor the worst. But there should be more seriousness in a company owned by the Norwegian state.”
Bring is not the only company who drivers accuse of lax safety and skills training. A fleet manager from a multinational company with an office in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, tells us that when she needs to instruct a new driver on health and safety matters, she spends “20-30 minutes with him over the phone”.
We can see the human cost of failures in road safety in the haulage industry from data collected just this past summer - and the main victims are the drivers.
In June this year, Ionut Pascariu, 32, from Botosani, Romania, was transporting oak and furniture in Germany when he lost control of his lorry, which tilted over and crashed. He was killed. He is survived by a wife and two children. In France, a pile-up, also in June this year, resulted in the deaths of two truck drivers: one Romanian and one Czech.
In the same month, in France, another Romanian driver, in his mid-20s, hit a lorry parked on the emergency lane. His colleague riding along with him was severely injured, as were the two Bulgarians in the parked vehicle.
In 2017, over 25,300 people lost their lives on EU roads and 14 percent of them were aged between 18 and 24. Young people are almost twice as likely to be killed in a road crash than the average person, according to EU data. Inexperienced drivers are sought-after by large haulage companies. The Romanian drivers to whom we spoke claim this preference, for lorry drivers with almost zero experience, is based on an intention to spend as little as possible on wages. But this carries an obvious risk.
The EU’s Directive on drivers’ qualification and periodic training, aimed at improving road safety, entered into force on 10 September 2003. It means professional drivers must be reassessed and trained regularly. Bring’s press officer said that its Slovak subsidiary organises road safety training at least twice a year.
The World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims is on 18 November.
Additional Investigate Europe (IE) reporters: Wojciech Ciesla, Nikolas Leontopoulos, Maria Maggiore, Leila Minano, Paulo Pena, Harald Schumann, Jef Poortmans, Elisa Simantke. IE is a pan-European pilot project: a team of journalists who report cross-border on how EU policies impact us all.