Written by Thomas Klikauer and Norman Simms
It is Saturday morning in Dagenham, East London and for truck driver Johan Most Brexit means waiting. It was the Saturday after Britain had left the EU. Lorry driver Most is feeling the dire consequences. He has been on the road for six days. Actually, he wanted to stop in Dagenham only briefly to pick up his customs papers. Barbara Windsor is the UK customs agent who was supposed to get his official papers ready.
Ms Windsor receives him on the second floor of the freight forwarding building behind a plastic screen – a Coronavirus protection. Ms Windsor had to disappoint the truck driver. The documents for the kitchen appliances which Most is supposed to bring from North Wales to the German city of Hannover are still being processed. Ms Windsor could not say when they would return from “up there,” as she put it.
Johann wears his work clothes, grey jeans, dark blue sweater, neon yellow vest. He looks resignedly over the parking lot. Tomorrow Most’s wife celebrates her 39th birthday. He actually wanted to be back home tonight. If Ms Windsor doesn’t knock on the driver’s truck door with the papers in the next few hours, it won’t work. Most continues waiting.
On 1st of January 2021, a new border in Europe was created with the UK’s exit from the EU. Truck driver Johan Most is one of those who can directly feel the consequences of this decision.
Every day, Johan watches the flow of goods passing through Europe. He is part of a cross-Europe delivery stream – one of those who moves it along. When he talks about his career, it always includes the history of European integration. It has changed the lives of many people bringing many benefits.
In 1990, when Most became a truck driver, those were still the golden days of long-distance transport. Without GPS, without electronic control of the permitted driving times, without tracking from the central office, without mobile phone—only with a paper folded map and a hand-written delivery address, off drivers went on their own . Being a trucker meant freedom back then.
As usual, Johan Most would now be on his way to and from Great Britain with his truck. There is a ritual from this earlier time that is important. If Most is overtaken by other trucks, he would signal the overtaking driver with a light horn. The rear of the vehicles which are often more than seventeen meters long, can hardly be seen through the side mirrors. In the dense traffic of the London ring, the ritual is a real help. As a thank you, the overtaking truck flashes. It would create small “light show” against the loneliness of the road.
Well, what do you know, Barbara Windsor, the customs agent, didn’t knock on Most’s window on Saturday. Nor on Sunday either. The driver must remain in England. He stands with his blue jumbo truck, 18.75 meters long. Where is he? He is at a truck stop in East London. The service area is so crowded that some trucks are parked in bus- and car-lanes. Today Most will spend his fourth night there.
Supplies are slowly running out. Under his bed in the driver’s cabin, Most has a freezer compartment from which he could heat up food while on the road. It usually contains ham, margarine, cheese, gouda, cucumbers, tomatoes, ready-made soup and multi-grain bread.
But today, there is hot food. If Most pays £37 for parking instead of £35, he gets a £10 food voucher for a nearby fast-food restaurant. Most goes to Burger King. He orders chicken and bacon using the voucher. The waitress tells him that he can also have the “double chicken menu” without additional payment. Nice, says Most, not everyone does that anymore.
The year 2005 ended Most’s golden years. The logistics industry was in transition. In 2004, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Cyprus and Malta joined the EU. Many companies started to outsource their logistics to Eastern European freight forwarders.
Most’s employer also wanted to save costs. Most and his four colleagues were twice dismissed and twice their dismissals were overturned by Germany’s labor court. European regulations had protected him and his colleagues. But the company didn’t let up. Most was proud to cling to his job. But eventually, like many others, Most quit his job.
The timing was bad. Nobody hired drivers on good terms anymore. Most was faced with a stark choice: either take a poorly paid job continuing as an employed truck driver who can no longer pay the home loan for his house or become self-employed and try to earn enough money on his own to keep his house. Most decided for self-employment. He got a refrigerated truck with his savings. As a subcontractor of a large forwarding company, he moved fresh meat from Portugal to Ireland, ice-cream from Denmark to Spain.
Meanwhile back in the UK, Most is still queuing in line for a Coronavirus test at the truck stop. It is the second time in four days. These tests are only valid for up to 72 hours. Most’s first test has already expired. The British government has set up a white container and two blue pavilions for the testing. Two large posters hang on the container, UK’s New Start. Let’s Get Going“. The British government is promoting Brexit among waiting truck drivers.
Most of the time Johan Most stands in line in silence. Fifty-eight other drivers wait with him. Behind him, a slim Polish and a Croatian in a blue jacket with white collar. They talk in broken English. One asks John how long he has been waiting for his customs papers? Four days, utters Most. In the morning the forwarding company called him. The papers are here, he is finally allowed to go.
The three men exchange ideas. The Polish man says he earns as a base wage €950.- For this, the company pays a premium and expenses, usually bringing him to €2,400 a month. In case of illness and pension, however, it looks bad for him. His employer pays social security contributions only on his base salary. Most earns a little more than his Slovenian colleague with expenses for every day he drives and performance bonuses for months without sick leave.
John Most is sorry for those who have been on the road for weeks, sometimes even months at a time, and who earn less than he. If all drivers went on strike for one day, we could achieve something, Most says. Equal pay for equal work, no matter what nationality. He would like that.
Supermarkets would remain empty, parts of the economy would could come to a standstill. But as things stands, he can’t even talk to most drivers about what they had for breakfast yesterday. At 4pm, after four hours of waiting in an ice-cold wind, Most gets his second Corona test result: negative. He doesn’t like to imagine what would have happened with a positive test result. Quarantine in the truck’s cabin for sure.
On the way to the Eurotunnel, Most passes a checkpoint. A woman in a rain parka and warning vest asks for his corona test. Currently, only truck drivers with a negative Corona test are allowed on the last highway towards the Eurotunnel.
When Most drives, he often phones his family, and sometimes to Hans. Hans was once a young colleague of Most’s. For three years, Hans drove to England with Johann Then he found a girlfriend, and the constant absence became too much for him. Hans quit. Now Hans has a job where he is at home at about 5pm on most evenings. Johan thinks of himself somewhat as Hans’ mentor. When Hans told him that he was broke, Most advised him, If possible, get some other work. Most cautioned the young man, You don’t have to do much wrong these days to get kicked out.
In 2008, shortly after Johan Most had purchased additional trucks, his clients no longer paid on time. Often they came up with only half, a third or even only a quarter of the agreed amount. It was the time of the Global Financial Crisis. Most’s bank did not want to lend him more money to compensate for the failed payments. Most therefore went bankrupt in April 2008.
He lost his job, his house and many friends. Most says, I certainly didn’t do everything right on the business side of things. But to this day, he is convinced that the forwarding company also shot him down because the competition from Eastern Europe was cheaper.
When Most talks about the year 2008, it still upsets him today. That’s when I exploded, he says. When he applied for social assistance without a job and with four children, he was told that he had no claim for help as a self-employed person. After an appointment at a counseling center, he was helped with €200 per week for him and his family. He was unemployed for two and a half months. Mentally, he was down. Some days he barely got out of bed. Eventually, though, he found a new job.
Johann Most started driving for a subcontractor. On Monday afternoon he left his apartment and on Saturday afternoon he returned home. During the day he had to sleep in rest areas. It was summer and it was hot. His truck does not have a stationary air conditioning system. He hardly got any rest. After a few weeks, a letter arrived from th e German welfare office. Since he was unemployed for less than three months, he must pay back the €200 support per week he had received. Most paid the money back to Germany’s welfare office in small installments.
The alarm clock on his cell phone rings. Most was still asleep at 5am. He had slept badly. Now, he desperately needs a cup of coffee. He puts a pot of water on the gas stove. Most takes out a brochure from a drawer in the dashboard. It is intended to prepare drivers for post-Brexit customs controls. Most reads the directions. But he still doesn’t really know what’s coming after Brexit. He starts the engine. The Eurotunnel is nine kilometers away.
In May 2012, Most started a new job at Schinderhannes Ltd. shipping company. Since then he travelled to England and throughout Europe many times. The job is exhausting but people at Schinderhannes Ltd. are decent in this rather tough business with low margins and long hours. My wage is always there on time on the 10th of the month, sometimes even earlier,” Most says. For him, the position at Schinderhannes Ltd. is a safe haven after the last few turbulent years.
Johan Most approaches the Eurotunnel. The check-in is surprisingly uncomplicated. Passport and Corona test are checked twice, once by British officials and once by French officials. Then the condition of Most’s truck is briefly checked. He no longer has to present the customs declaration, it is stored in the system and is read out via its registration plate. Most is allowed to roll his truck onto the train that will take him back to the EU.
For Johann Most, the Eurotunnel is a towering achievement. It runs 175 meters below the waves of the English Channel, from the white cliffs of Dover to the French mainland. It is almost 50 kilometers long and takes 35 minutes to pass through. If you drive through the Eurotunnel today, the mobile phone even shows the lowest point.
That’s one side. The other side awaits you in Calais. The truck terminal there looks like an open-pit mine converted into a high security wing. Streets and tracks are surrounded by four-meter-high white metal fences with wire mesh at the top. The entire area is illuminated by yellow and white spotlights. A four meter high concrete wall, one kilometer long, separates the terminal from the place where hundreds of refugees had set up a make-shift camp until 2016. In Calais, it seems that the EU is at war.
Since its opening 25 years ago, Most has driven through the Eurotunnel more than 1,500 times. When he approaches the Eurotunnel from the European side, his attention slowly increases hundreds of kilometers before his arrival. He and his colleagues have instructions not to stop in Belgium and France except for refueling. The danger is too great that desperate refugees could cut their way into the interior of the truck, hide on the axles or climb into one of the spare parts boxes under the vehicle.
If the traffic runs smoothly to the Eurotunnel site, Most has it made for the time being. He can relax. If there is traffic jam in front of the tunnel, however, the real competition starts. Refugees dart in and out of the lines of trucks, looking for ways to climb inside unnoticed. In his locked driver’s cabin, Most constantly looks into the side mirrors, trying to scare potential passengers off by his looks and hooting of his horn.
For many drivers, these hours mean stress every time. In the terminal, the trucks are searched again with dogs and, if suspected, also with a scanner. Nevertheless, if a refugee makes it to England on Must’s truck, he is in danger. In a situation like this, nobody believes you when you say that you didn’t notice anything, he says.
Just before Most crosses the border into Germany, he has one more thing to do. He goes to the gas station and buys a cup of coffee for himself and his wife. If you ask him about truck driving, he has to laugh and says, I have seen many motorways. For most of them truck driving remains the same old business, but going into the UK is now more difficult and dangerous. Will he keep doing it, you may ask. Well, what else is there to do?