Truckers bear a heavy load

French told to lift their blockade, but drivers stay gloomy
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The Independent Online
Joe Russell has been driving for 27 years. Fifteen hours a day, six days a week. Yesterday, taking an enforced break with some 1,500 other lorry drivers stuck in a mammoth log jam in Folkestone, he was wondering why he bothers.

Travelling down from Glasgow in his own "tractor", he was trying to take, 16 tons of fish to France. The hold-up is wasting valuable hours: "I have got fresh fish and maybe 36 hours of fridge fuel. I've done nearly 20 hours and haven't even made it across the Channel yet."

The French fishermen's blockade of Calais, Boulogne and Dunkirk caused chaos for thousands of travellers, Mr Russell and his colleagues included. The fishermen said the strike would continue until at least 10am today.

Various attempts were made throughout the day to try to put pressure on the striking fishermen to call off their blockade.

One such effort took place at three o'clock, yesterday, when rival cross- Channel ferry companies cast aside their differences to begin legal proceedings against the fishermen, who have dropped their nets outside the major harbours in protest at a new European Union ruling over mesh size of fishing nets.

As far as Mr Russell is concerned, the blockade is just the latest in a series of vexations lorry drivers have suffered since the bonfire of regulations in the 1980s which spawned myriad trucking firms. "It's all free- market now. There are rules - but they are easily broken. Not by me, mind," says Mr Russell.

"You get cashers, work that is completely off the company books. You get trip money, a flat fee to deliver goods with no questions asked - all that means is that you get people working all the time without concern for their health. You're supposed to have a tachograph that tells inspectors what you have been up to. But things are easily lost or mislaid. People out there are getting away with murder."

Mr Russell, who is not a member of any union, thinks Britain is unlikely to see any French-style revolts against the political establishment. "We do not stick together. In France the police turn a blind eye because they are all in the same union."

Money, as always, provides a convenient answer. "On a good week, aye, I might get pounds 3,000 of work in. But that's non-stop work and probably only works out at pounds 1 for every mile driven. Then you've got your overheads - I spend pounds 4,000 on fuel every month."

Mr Russell, who left school at 15 and grew up in Chryston, a suburb of Glasgow, said: "I wouldn't advise anyone to go into trucking now. I left Glasgow at 8am yesterday, I am supposed to be in Boulogne, then I go to Belgium. I am doing 3,500 miles a week. That's six days a week," he says. "I work a 15-hour day. That's nine hours' driving, two hours' loading, two hours' eating and two hours' emptying the trailer."

To add to his burden he and other lorry drivers face further delays and disruption next month if French transport unions carry out their threats to strike over pension pay-outs.

The move comes after negotiations between Bernard Pons, the French transport minister and the drivers' unions broke down earlier this month. The unions are planning a series of strikes in France beginning on 5 May.

Mr Russell has little faith in the British authorities' ability to resolve the mess. The Frieght Transport Association delivered an over-sized invoice yesterday for 800m francs, (pounds 100m) for compensation resulting from last Novembers's French truckers blockade to the French Embassy in London.

The bill was presented to officials by the FTA director general David Green who also delivered a letter to French President Jaques Chirac calling on him to "use all the powers available to you to prevent a recurrence of these blockades".

Stranded on the cold, hard shoulder at Folkestone, surrounded by fellow drivers running low on fuel, food, money and patience, symbolic demonstrations in London are of little consequence to Mr Russell.

He has to deal with being his own boss and the attendant hassle. On the Continent, there is a plethora of restrictions to keep up with: road tax to pay in Belgium; tolls in France; and lorry-free times on many roads during the weekend.

"I started on my own five years ago when I brought my tractor for pounds 55,000. If I'd known how hard it was going to be, I wouldn't have bothered."

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