Employing an illegal courier? In Belgium, the Public Prosecution Service closes the depot

Employing an illegal courier? In Belgium, the Public Prosecution Service closes the depot

When the inspectors enter the depot of the postal company GLS in Puurs (a town south-east of Antwerp), the young men reach for their mobile phones at the assembly line and immediately start calling. Fierce looks everywhere. What is going on?

An experienced inspector (61) with short gray hair walks past men who load their vans with packages. She stops halfway through the depot – her employer and her colleagues are not allowed in the newspaper, “to protect their privacy and integrity”, a spokesperson for the labor inspectorate e-mailed. At dock 34, the inspector says what she has said hundreds of times over the decades: “Labour inspectorate, papers please.”

After checks in recent weeks at PostNL and DPD locations in Flanders, inspectors, police officers and customs officers are turning the accounts of courier companies at British parcel company GLS inside out on this drizzly December morning. GLS hires courier companies with their own drivers to deliver the parcels, but is responsible for ensuring that these companies comply with the rules.

Shattering in the postal parcel industry: it seems to be the rule rather than the exception. In the Netherlands, the abuses have been in the news frequently in recent years, but in Belgium it appears that even more is going on in the past six months. In recent years, for example, there have been many reports of undeclared work, underpayment of parcel deliverers by the courier companies, drivers on benefits who deliver parcels, couriers without residence papers, minors doing heavy work in depots.

The vulnerability of the parcel industry is related to how it is organised. PostNL, DPD, and GLS have the parcels delivered mainly by self-employed people with courier companies. Because there are hundreds of companies, it is difficult to keep track of them. The delivery companies have their own routes: they receive a fixed fee per address. The subcontractor pays for the bus, petrol, car insurance, tin damage and personnel costs.

Photo Jasper Jacobs/Belgium

Range of violations

Online shopping has taken off during the corona crisis. Postal companies benefit from this. Turnover last year increased by 14.5 percent to 3.3 billion euros, gross profit almost doubled to 245 million euros in the Netherlands; figures for Belgium are not available.

But an investigation by the Inspectorate SZW last year showed that nine out of ten courier companies of PostNL, DHL, DPD, GLS in the Netherlands do not have their affairs in order. The violations range from undeclared work, couriers who do not have valid residence documents, to the re-leasing of delivery routes to other entrepreneurs.

It is not much better in Belgium, says Gianni Reale, public prosecutor at the Public Prosecution Service in Mechelen and who specializes in crimes in the workplace. Reale is the officer in Belgium who wants to tackle abuses in the postal industry. He is sitting in his office in the Flemish city: large wooden cupboards, a desk full of papers. During a check at PostNL in Mechelen in May, it turned out that 11 of the 23 drivers were working illegally, he says. And when inspectors raided three PostNL depots two weeks ago, they found a range of violations: ten undeclared workers, ten deliverers who worked more hours than their contract allows and a courier without a residence permit.

That wasn’t the only thing. The officer “received concrete information” that a PostNL manager (the company controls 10 to 15 percent of the parcel market in Belgium and is growing rapidly) called off drivers during the check. “If this is true,” says Reale, “that is an obstruction of supervision and therefore a crime.” The case is currently still under investigation, the officer emphasizes. PostNL previously emphasized in NRC not to cooperate with cheating courier companies and to cooperate fully with the investigations of the labor inspectorate.

How is GLS doing this morning in Puurs?

At the briefing for officers, customs officers and inspectors at five o’clock in the morning at the police station in a town close to Puurs, police chief Geert van de Eede warned against ‘runners’, drivers who flee. Last summer, the GLS police fished a driver out of the forest next to the distribution center. The man had walked straight through the rose bushes. “He was covered in scratches.”

All escape routes are closed today. Police cars 510 and 520 cover the edge of the forest, says Van de Eede. 530 monitors the escape route to Duvel Logistics. During the check at GLS in May, some drivers tried to get their registration in order quickly. That is why Van de Eede urges his people: “Be sharp. I think GLS will not cooperate much.”

Employing an illegal courier? In Belgium, the Public Prosecution Service closes the depot

Abuse at PostNL is no longer a surprise to the Belgian public prosecutor

bogus self-employed

Initially, the justice system in Belgium mainly focused on courier companies, the so-called subcontractors, who did not comply with the rules. But in the courtroom, officer Reale noticed that self-employed people invariably told the same story: they were not perpetrators, but victims. They got into trouble because they didn’t earn enough.

Since then, Reale has also focused on the large postal companies. According to him, they have an important responsibility. “The couriers work in the depots of these companies and drive around in buses with the company name on it. They do not determine their own work rhythm and remuneration. Then you can’t just maintain that they are subcontractors. Some of them are false self-employed.”

In the Netherlands, the emphasis is on imposing fines

At the end of last month, the Belgian minister Petra De Sutter (Green, civil servants and public companies) stated in the daily newspaper The time that there should be a law that determines the percentage of couriers that are employed. This would put an end to “false self-employed”, according to the minister. It is still uncertain whether this law will actually come into effect.

In the meantime, Reale continues his fight against the abuses. What is striking: his approach is tougher than the Dutch one – with the latter the emphasis is on imposing fines.

Reale has filed a criminal case against PostNL and GLS. He wants to convince the judge that the courier companies or their drivers are disguised employees of PostNL and GLS. The officer threatened to close depots last summer, and he kept his promise a few weeks ago. PostNL had to believe it. A distribution center in Wommelgem (PostNL has seven of these centers in Belgium) was closed for the days around Black Friday, a period when online shopping is extremely high. Depots are not closed in the Netherlands.

Is GLS facing the same penalty this morning?

This morning it is not so bad, says the experienced inspector. “Everyone speaks English, French or Dutch. Normally I often need an interpreter.” The inspector has checked a number of Romanians who drive for the same courier company. Their driver’s licenses, registrations and social security payments are in order. She gives the three men a yellow wristband, so that her colleagues see that they have been checked.

Papers at home

“Can you come for a minute?” A young inspector checks a courier from Burkina Faso. The man has an Italian residence permit, but says he has forgotten his Belgian papers at home. The experienced inspector is in doubt and calls the Immigration Department.

“Illegal?” she responds in surprise. The man’s application for residence in Belgium was rejected. He can’t work. In September, the man heard that he must return to Italy or Burkina Faso. He has to go to the police station. Another colleague unloads his delivery van. The bus may not be used until the investigation is completed.

Inspecting alone is not the solution to prevent abuses, the inspectors say when they return to the police station at half past ten in the morning. They notice fewer violations since the inspectorate checked the depots several times over the past year, but some companies continue to break the rules. Some of the courier companies and their drivers must be employed by PostNL and GLS, says the experienced inspector, so that there is no longer any ambiguity about the wage. And self-employed workers should be paid better, she believes. Moreover, she says, there is also a responsibility with the consumer. “As long as they prefer not to pay for an order, you keep the abuses going.”

At the end of the morning, it appears that a total of forty ‘violations’ had been detected: four times undeclared work, one time ‘illegal employment’, and 33 drivers worked more hours than their contracts allow.

Immediately after the inspection at GLS, the labor inspectorate shared their findings by email with officer Gianni Reale. He is relentless: the GLS depot will close immediately, for 1.5 days.

That same day, GLS published a response on its website. The company “regrets” that the depot has closed, which has “virtually paralyzed full operational operation”. As a result, the customers are the victims, the British company writes. GLS believes that “external parties with whom it cooperates” must abide by the rules. “The management closely monitors compliance.”

Whether that really happens on foot will be evaluated at the next check, says officer Reale. GLS will have “an ultimate chance”, he says, to show his “good intentions”.

A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of December 7, 2021

Employing an illegal courier? In Belgium, the Public Prosecution Service closes the depot
Source link Employing an illegal courier? In Belgium, the Public Prosecution Service closes the depot

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