Migrant crisis: Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

From stowaways to Operation Stack, it’s a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent. Oscar Quine joins one driver to find out what life is really like on the inside of the cab

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The Independent Online

In Folkestone harbour, fishing boats rest on the sand, waiting for the tide to rise. It's an August afternoon but the sky is a mottled grey. A few tourists amble along the harbour wall. It starts to rain. In a nearby truck park, Ellis, Carl, Tony, John and Austin huddle together under the protection of an open truck bonnet. All five men are drivers for TDW Distribution, a haulage firm based in Bridgend, South Wales, and between them they've had quite a summer.

Lorry driving is one of the most visible of invisible jobs. The vehicles are a constant presence on our roads, the men (and it is predominantly men) at the wheel tucked away in enclosed worlds that outsiders rarely get a glimpse of. But in 2015 the challenges of transcontinental truck driving – a job that keeps entire populations supplied with everything from yoghurts to fuel to washing machines – have come into focus as rarely before.

Operation Stack – the police-orchestrated procedure that sees the parking of lorries on the M20 while the Channel Tunnel buckles under various strains – has become a recurring blight on the truckers' lives, consigning them to hours, even days, stationary at the roadside. "It's been a bloody nightmare," says Ellis, lighting a cigarette.

On the other side of the Channel, it's been less a case of frustration and boredom and more one of stress and fear, as migrants gathered in "the Jungle", the makeshift migrant camps near Calais, attempt to board lorries as a means of getting to the UK.

The problem really started when workers from the French ferry company MyFerryLink went on strike in June, blockading the port and tunnel. Queues of lorries began to form and people from the camps descended on them. The drivers found themselves on the front line, "caught like sitting ducks", says Tony.

The five men from TDW are sceptical of the portrait painted of those living in the Jungle as helpless victims of war or persecution. "There's been a shift," says Tony. "You used to see families, but now it's young men in the 18-to-40 bracket." They are fit enough, he points out, to climb on to the top of the trailers.

Tony and Ellis take me around the side of the truck. The trailers are curtain-sided and marked by patches over slash marks. All of the trailers bear similar scars, made – the drivers say – by would-be stowaways checking the cargo. Ellis opens the back of his truck and points to where he says they have cut holes in the roof.

All five men say that they have had people clamber aboard, and that they feel vulnerable. Their main concerns are their personal safety – and hefty fines. "What happens if I set off for Calais at 3am and I have to check the back of the van in the dark, and there's a group of them on there?" asks Tony, in anxious tones. "And we know they've got the knives they used to cut the holes."

If found to have illegal stowaways on board by UK customs officers, drivers can be fined up to £2,000. Ellis says he once found a group of 35 people aboard his truck. "The problem is," he says,"they think this is the land of milk and honey – free education, free healthcare. > If they took some of those incentives away, less of them would come."

One way or another, lorry driving is quite a life, and I'm here to meet up with another driver in order to see the world from the inside of a cab. Norman Corcoran is 55 and from Ammanford in Carmarthenshire. His cargo is metal coil. He and I spend the next 18 hours together, travelling some 300 miles, and topics of conversation include tax and duty; the removal of European borders in 1991; Belgian prostitutes; YouTube compilations of traffic accidents; tobacco smuggling; petrol prices; bent traffic cops; post-war European history; and dangerous loads of yore, including bombs, ammunition and bone-dissolving hydrofluoric acid.

"There's a lot of bullshit in this industry," he says. "The number of drivers who say they were in the queue for the Herald of Free Enterprise, the queue would've stretched back to Ghent. And then there are all the ones who were almost hit when the plane came down in Lockerbie." It helps pass the time, I suggest.

The story of trucking is the story of many British blue-collar industries. It was, until recently, marked by a degree of specialised knowledge and a sense of professional pride and communal identity. Behind the driver's seat in Norman's cab hang three or four pressed shirts, all bearing the TDW logo. Now, though, the UK industry is shrinking, subject to the pressures of globalisation and a shortage of drivers. Norman's father and grandfather were in the business. But, echoing a shift in the British labour market towards service industries, one of his sons now works for Admiral Insurance and the other for Virgin Media.

After a lunch of pork chops, mushroom sauce, chips, mushy peas and gravy, in the Routemaster drivers' canteen on board the ferry, we head to the duty-free shop to look for an anniversary present for Norman's wife. Wandering past displays of perfumes, chocolates and wine, glinting under fluorescent lights, Norman tells me he has been away for 14 days. Sometimes he can be on the road for four weeks straight. He has annual leave at the end of the week but will spend it at home. There are odd jobs to do there, and he and his wife have had to fork out to have the front of the house plastered so can't afford to get away.

As the industry has become more competitive, the work has become more demanding. "You're doing twice now what you used to, but you're not getting twice the rate for it," Norman says. "It doesn't add up." There is still variety – "you might have six weeks of doing totally different jobs" – but chances are you will end up doing two or three weeks on similar routes. "There used to be a lot more freedom," he adds.

As we wait to disembark, he tells me about the orange-transporting season. Most of the TDW team used to be assigned to the Spanish route from November to January. Then an EU law came in stating that the fruit had to be carried by refrigerated trailers, which the company doesn't have. Other British hauliers' European routes have been eaten into by the removal of barriers to entry that have come with European integration – and, in particular, cheaper labour from eastern Europe.

Now, the drivers refer to Belgium, where we are destined, as their "comfort zone". It accounts for around half of TDW's business. Very occasionally they get to make trips as far afield as Sweden or Italy. Norman shows me a video on his mobile phone, filmed from his dashcam. "I was going down the Mont Blanc route from Italy to France, and the right bit of music came on the radio at the right time," he explains.

It's a beautiful scene – azure sky, lush pines, and powder-topped mountains – and the song is "Convoy" by CW McCall, a 1970s number one about an imagined trucker rebellion. The song includes CB radio chatter, peppered with trucker slang. A honey-voiced chorus gives ode to the truckers: "...Come on and join our convoy/ Ain't nothin' gonna get in our way/ We gonna roll this truckin' convoy/ 'Cross the U-S-A…"

We are a far cry from the American prairies. Outside, the dismal landscape of north-eastern France rolls past. And still it rains. Inside, the cab is a self-contained unit of grey plastic and heavy-duty carpet. At the back is a single bunk. From beneath it, in the space between our two seats, a fridge slides out. Above my head is a microwave and above Norman's a television. Each nook and cranny has something carefully tucked into it. Every 15 minutes or so, an automated air freshener above me gives a little digestive gurgle and emits a synthetic fruit-smelling mist.

Norman has been trucking since he was 17. Was there a golden age, I ask him. "Yeah, the mid-90s," he says. It was after that time, he explains, that the twin effects of the relaxation of EU borders and the collapse of the Soviet Union began to have an impact. The former meant that a lot of the specialist knowledge of permits, visas and regulations, which could shave hours off a good trucker's journey, was no longer required. The latter meant that there was no shortage of cheap labour willing to undertake what was becoming a less skilled occupation. "People started to realise you didn't need to be a specialist company to operate in the industry. You just went to the factory and tipped [dropped off your load]. More and more firms came in and they started cutting their rates. 'I'll do that job for £50 less than he'll do it,' then it was £100 less than what he'd do it. Somebody else came in and said, 'I'll do it for £300 instead of £500.'"

A number of drivers also began to see their incomes squeezed by the gradual levelling of tobacco prices across Europe. Combined with more stringent customs checks, it has done away with what was a very lucrative grey market. "I know one boy who broug ht enough tobacco in that he only lived off his expenses. He didn't touch his pay for four years and then went and bought a house with it. A £100,000 house!"

I am struck by how regulated the job is. Norman points out a black box that is his tachometer. Every European truck cab has to have one. It records how far the vehicle has travelled and how long it has been stationary. These timings are strictly controlled. Drivers must take an hour's break every four and a half hours, and are allowed to drive no more than nine hours a day. They have to take a 45-hour weekend break. If a driver takes time off, he must have a letter to the authorities from his employer to explain why. The authorities might then ask to see the tachometer's printouts from when the truck was out of action. It is like having a policeman sitting in each and every truck cab.

We arrive at our destination – the northern Belgian city of Mechelen, midway between Brussels and Antwerp – and go our separate ways for the night. The next morning, Norman drops off the metal coil, picks me up, and we head to a truck stop in town, hoping for an omelette. It's closed though, so we settle instead for a few pastries from the petrol station. Back in the truck, we turn on the radio. "Good morning, I'm Simon King, with the 5 Live weather. We've got some very heavy showers across the UK…"

Norman points out his dashcam. He's caught a couple of minor accidents on film and – in an unashamed example of taking your work home with you – likes to watch YouTube compilations of bad drivers getting their comeuppance. "In Russia, it's part of the insurance to have a camera," he explains. "Some of the things they get up to. Well, you just can't explain. You've got to see them. I can't understand some of them, and I've been driving nearly 40 years." His pet hate on the road is BMW drivers, who, he says, "act like their indicators are optional extras".

We head to back towards the coast and the town of Tielt, to pick up our return-leg cargo – a delivery of plastic boards from a warehouse that smells of wet wooden pallets. Leaving Belgium, driving down a road that Norman says used to be notorious for prostitution, we pull into a service station to buy rolling tobacco. It is the last stop we will make before the port, and Norman checks the back of the truck. No one has come aboard.

The Home Office has issued drivers with a checklist of safety precautions they can take to prevent stowaways. But for Norman, the issue is out of the truckers' hands. "Everybody is concentrating on the 'immigrant problem'," he says. "The immigrant isn't the problem: the problem is that there's not enough capacity to cross the Channel." If the queues of lorries were not there, he says, people from the Jungle would not have the chance to infiltrate the trailers.

Halfway between Dunkirk and Calais, we see a solitary figure walking down the hard shoulder. "There's your first immigrant," says Norman. "Some of the drivers will try to get close enough to force them to jump back over the roadside barriers, and some say they throw eggs or tomatoes at them," he says as we whizz by. We spot another lone figure walking through a field, then a third, down a side-street. Passing the Jungle, Norman slows down so we can get a better view. It's a truly depressing sight. Do you feel for these people on a human level, I ask? "I have sympathy that they're trying to make a better life for themselves and their families. I've got no argument with that, I can't fault it. But the way they're going about it is what I don't agree with."

Immigration and customs cleared, we pull into the queue to board the P&O ferry. What do you think they should do about the Jungle, I ask? There isn't a solution is there? "No," Norman says, looking out of his window. He seems a little uncomfortable with me pursuing the subject. I don't blame him. One haulage company I spoke to said they wouldn't get involved with journalists again after a TV crew did a hatchet job on one of their drivers. Of course Norman has no answer for the Jungle; nobody does. He and his fellow drivers see themselves as being on the front line of a dangerous situation when they would rather just get on and do their job. To make matters worse, it is a job in an industry subject to the abstract pressures of globalisation.

Looking in his wing mirror, as big as an elephant's ear, Norman changes the subject. "It's looking awfully dark behind us," he says. "I think there might be a thunderstorm coming now." Sure enough, down the valley formed by the queues of trucks behind us, the sky darkens in gradients to murky black.

An hour and a half later – after a lunch of chicken pie and sponge cake – we arrive in Dover. As we pull off the ferry, Norman's phone rings. An urgent delivery needs to be made to France by 9am – in 15 hours. Norman's tachometer will just allow for it. A driver is on the way down from Slough with the load. When she arrives, they will swap trailers and Norman will get some sleep before heading back on the 2am ferry.

We shake hands. "Ta-ra," Norman says, and he heads off across the car park. The sun shines for the first time in two days. In the harbour, the tide is in and the boats bob merrily. µ

From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent. Oscar Quine joins one driver to find out what life is really like on the inside of the cab

Above: the scene in Calais this summer as migrants sought a route to the UK Left: Norman Corcoran checks his vehicle

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Looking in his wing mirror, as big as an elephant's ear, Norman changes the subject ∑∑

Left: Operation Stack on the M20 in Kent; above: Norman Corcoran at the wheel of his lorry

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Each nook and cranny has something tucked into it. An air freshener emits a fruit-smelling mist ∑∑

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