Truck-driving is a modern form of indentured slavery

USA Today undertook a year-long investigation into southern California truckers, so-called "independent contractors" who form a critical link from America's busiest port to the rest of the country, and found that drivers are sunk into deep pits of debt due to predatory contracts they signed under duress, debts that are used to force them to work unsafe hours, falsify their work records, and sometimes bring home literal pennies a week after working 80+ hours (some drivers even finish the week in deeper debt, owing money to the companies they "contract" for).

When these workers take their grievances to California's labor board — with the help of the Teamsters Union — they are generally vindicated and awarded compensation, but the majority of the drivers lack the wherewithal to undertake such a grievance.

The companies whose goods these truckers move include some of America's biggest brands, like J Crew, Ralph Lauren, LG, Home Depot, and Target, and these companies wash their hands of any responsibility for ensuring that their shipping contractors are not engaged in criminal, exploitative, systematic theft of wages and unsafe working conditions.

The current situation stems from a California rule that banned out-of-date, polluting diesel trucks from its ports. Trucking companies bought all-new trucks with better emissions profiles, then forced their workers to sign contracts through which they assumed all debt for this new fleet, with payments to be taken from their paychecks. The workers were made to sign on pain of immediate termination, without access to a lawyer or advisor, and many didn't speak or read English well enough to understand the contracts.

The contracts allow the company to terminate the truckers' employment at will, or to deny them shifts. Workers who miss any work, or a single payment, lose all the payments they've put into their trucks, and many report watching years' worth of wages disappear at the stroke of a pen because they refused to go out on the road for 20 hour shifts, or took a few days off work for a parent's funeral.

Desperate drivers take out second mortgages on their homes and borrow from relatives to make payments on their trucks, but a driver who falls out of favor with a boss can be "starved" out of his rig if the boss just refuses to give him any shifts — eventually, the driver will simply run out of places to borrow money for payments on the truck (and the drivers are contractually forbidden from driving for other companies, even if the company they work for won't give them any hours).

The owners of the companies that USA Today investigated denied all this, and when USA Today presented them with documentary evidence, they stopped answering USA Today's calls.

Trucking companies force drivers to work against their will – up to 20 hours a day – by threatening to take their trucks and keep the money they paid toward buying them. Bosses create a culture of fear by firing drivers, suspending them without pay or reassigning them the lowest-paying routes.

To keep drivers working, managers at a few companies have physically barred them from going home. More than once, Marvin Figueroa returned from a full day's work to find the gate to the parking lot locked and a manager ordering drivers back to work. "That was how they forced me to continue working," he testified in a 2015 labor case. Truckers at two other companies have made similar claims.

Employers charge not just for truck leases but for a host of other expenses, including hundreds of dollars a month for insurance and diesel fuel. Some charge truckers a parking fee to use the company lot. One company, Fargo Trucking, charged $2 per week for the office toilet paper and other supplies.

Drivers at many companies say they had no choice but to break federal safety laws that limit truckers to 11 hours on the road each day. Drivers at Pacific 9 Transportation testified that their managers dispatched truckers up to 20 hours a day, then wouldn't pay them until drivers falsified inspection reports that track hours. Hundreds of California port truckers have gotten into accidents, leading to more than 20 fatalities from 2013 to 2015, according to the USA TODAY Network's analysis of federal crash and port trade data.

Many drivers thought they were paying into their truck like a mortgage. Instead, when they lost their job, they discovered they also lost their truck, along with everything they'd paid toward it. Eddy Gonzalez took seven days off to care for his dying mother and then bury her. When he came back, his company fired him and kept the truck. For two years, Ho Lee was charged more than $1,600 a month for a truck lease. When he got ill and missed a week of work, he lost the truck and everything he'd paid.

Retailers could refuse to allow companies with labor violations to truck their goods. Instead they've let shipping and logistics contractors hire the lowest bidder, while lobbying on behalf of trucking companies in Sacramento and Washington D.C. Walmart, Target and dozens of other Fortune 500 companies have paid lobbyists up to $12.6 million to fight bills that would have held companies liable or given drivers a minimum wage and other protections that most U.S. workers already enjoy.

Rigged [Brett Murphy/USA Today]

(via Super Punch)