Pandemic spells dark times for Polish truckers
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Siedlce (Poland) (AFP)
Only a few weeks ago, Polish truckers were kings of the road in Europe. Now, they are in despair. If the coronavirus crisis drags on, Poland's road transport industry will be done for.
"If our current financial situation continues, we'll go bankrupt in two months unless the government comes to our aid," said Stanislaw Lecyk, the 56-year-old owner of transport company Frigodor.
Many of his 55 refrigerated trucks stand idle on the parking lot of the business in the eastern city of Siedlce. Half of the 80 employees are on forced vacation.
"For next week, only 10 percent of our initial orders remain," Lecyk told AFP, adding that he had to deregister a portion of his fleet to save on insurance.
- On the road to nowhere -
Frigodor is far from the only transport company experiencing hard times, said Jan Buczek, president of the Association of International Road Hauliers in Poland (ZMPD).
Polish truckers account for nearly 30 percent of the European market and the association includes 4,000 firms with around 400,000 drivers.
"About half of our trucks are parked up. That's backed up by the electronic highway toll counters," Buzcek said.
Making matters worse, the so-called "anti-crisis shield" deployed by Poland's government to support economic activity "left out truckers."
He said companies will only be able to pocket a one-off payment of 5,000 zloty (1,100 euros, $1,175), "which is enough to refuel," and not much else, he complained.
Europe's decision to relax certain rules, such as the duration of working time or of time-off, has helped, but "some countries aren't implementing the provisions."
"What we need is money. For the authorities to return our value added tax and give us cheap credit guaranteed by the government-owned BGK bank," Buczek said.
But he is not particularly optimistic, saying "the banks have us down as the riskiest group."
The drivers for their part are trying to keep calm and carry on, all the while wondering what lies ahead and realising they now scare people who cast a very wary eye on outsiders for fear of coronavirus.
"When I'm abroad and I ask someone for help, people move away," said Marek Gil, who has been a truck driver for 13 of his 41 years.
"They ask me to keep a safe distance. Sometimes I'm able to ask my question but other times they run away," he told AFP.
- 'Let's not freak out' -
Other countries are experiencing similar problems.
For example in France, companies complained that their drivers -- often unable to get protective gear -- are sometimes "ostracised" at the places they deliver to, and have been faced with closed bathrooms and shower facilities at rest areas.
"It's becoming very difficult to maintain a basic level of hygiene, to eat," said one 32-year-old driver based in France's northeastern department of Haute-Marne.
The driver, who wished to remain anonymous, told AFP that clients have also been banning them from using company toilets or "moving the coffee machine out of our reach."
Germany's DSLV Logistics Alliance reports the same issues.
Even as truck drivers are hailed by some as pandemic "heroes" for doing an essential job, "it would be good if the public's gratitude were reflected in the daily treatment of the drivers," the organisation's spokesman told AFP.
Gil, the Polish truck driver and a father of four, said he is not afraid of the virus, which has already infected more than 3,300 people in Poland and killed 71.
"Let's not freak out. I have to do my job. I have a family to feed. But I do worry," he said.
© 2020 AFP