The Filipino Expat Magazine talks to three kababayans whose jobs put them behind the wheel and take them to uncertain roads. Roads where they defy exhaustion, danger and even nature’s wrath. Roads where they learn to embrace the adventure, the excitement, the unexpected. In this article, Alvin Sta. Iglesia, a Pinoy truck driver shares his life on the European highways.
It’s 4:30 am and Alvin takes his last sip of coffee. He says a short prayer then sets his Tachocard. He doesn’t start his ignition right away so as not to wake up his neighbors from the noise of the engine. He first arranges the things on his dashboard before finally turning the ignition on. He fastens his seat belt and manoeuvres the truck towards the empty German highway. As the small Philippine flag sways above the dashboard, Alvin greets himself, “Enjoy the day!”
Alvin Comabig Sta. Iglesia, 45, comes from a family of drivers. His father was a jeepney driver and his grandfather drove ambulances. So it was not a wonder where Alvin got his love for driving. He started out as a truck helper that would later lead him to drive heavy trucks for 15 years.
A family of truck drivers
“I didn’t finish college due to financial reasons and driving is what I am really good at,” says Alvin, a native of Himay-angan, Liloan, Southern Leyte, during our online interview inside the cab of his truck parked in their base in Bergschendhoek, the Netherlands.
It was his uncle, also a truck driver, who told him that a Polish trucking company was looking for Filipino drivers to work in Europe. That he would earn six times more than his salary in the Philippines. Even if it meant leaving his wife and child behind, Alvin sent his application hoping that his long years of experience would be his ticket to the job. “I did it for my family’s future.”
Europe has been experiencing a shortage of heavy truck drivers for years now due to low salary, long working hours and tough work conditions, forcing truck companies to scout for workers from countries as far as the Philippines.
Driving around Europe
In 2016, Alvin arrived in Poland holding a D-type national visa which was later converted to Temporary Residence Permit. “I never imagined coming to Europe,” says Alvin adding that he was overwhelmed the first time he sat behind the wheel.
I was crying during the trip. It was a mix of homesickness, nervousness and excitement.
The following months, Alvin was driving through the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. “I got lost sometimes. I couldn’t ask anybody. I had to rely on my GPS.”
Alvin works from Monday to Friday, transporting essential products nine hours a day, with trips between 100 km and 200 km or more. Although the standard maximum daily hours is nine, he also works for 15 hours three times a week and ten hours twice a week. All his trips are logged in his tachograph card which records all his activities during the day. While his goods are being unloaded, Alvin waits in his truck and strums his guitar for some rock songs.
On long trips, Alvin spends the night at truck stops along the highway. “To be honest, I can’t sleep properly in these places. Just a slight noise makes me jump and look out the window. A friend of mine was robbed of diesel while he was sleeping. When he woke up, he lost 250 liters.”
He also had his fair share of risky situations on the road. One time, his tires burst but luckily, the rescue came fast. Last year he was caught in the snow and had to spend the night at a bus stop in the freezing cold. There was also a time when he drove on a steep zigzag road leading to a forest to load up logs. The road was slippery that one wrong move, the vehicle could fall into a ravine.
Alvin loves driving in the Netherlands because the land is flat while the traffic in Germany doesn’t amuse him. “Germany can be a headache, there are on-going constructions everywhere.“ To entertain himself, Alvin vlogs his daily trips for his subscribers. “I started vlogging so when I get older, my videos will remind me of my life as a truck driver in Europe.”
In his vlog (Pitrukersta Europa), Alvin tours his viewers to his compound in Bergschendhoek, showing the garage full of heavy trucks, the well-maintained toilets, shower rooms and the kitchen which he fondly calls the Pinoy kitchen because this is where he bonds with his fellow Pinoy drivers on their days off, cooking Filipino food, singing the karaoke and share work stories. On the wall hangs a Philippine flag.
A proud frontliner
It was still work for Alvin during the pandemic even if he had a choice to say no. He thought of the risk but he knew that, “If we didn’t deliver medical supplies, they wouldn’t have anything to use.” He is proud to be one of the frontliners during the hard times. Driving in Europe has taught Alvin to appreciate punctuality.
Years ago, there were reported cases of Filipino truck drivers working in horrible conditions and were treated badly by their employers in Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands. Most of these drivers worked for Polish trucking companies operating in Schengen-member countries. This led the POEA to recommend putting a temporary halt on the deployment of Filipino truck drivers in Poland. POLO also negotiated with the European Union to raise their salary to 2,000 euros, improve working hours and help protect Filipino drivers from any form of abuse.
Alvin is very much aware of the sad cases of his kababayans. He is grateful that he did not fall prey to an abusive agency and employer. “When I was starting, my salary was low but every year, we are given a raise. We have a basic taxable salary in Polish zloty and our per diem in euros. I am earning 2,800 euros now with free accommodation except food. As far as I know, Filipinos are paid lower than their European counterparts. But that’s the way it is. Aside from that, we are treated well here.”
Avoiding illegal recruiters
My advice to those who want to work as drivers in Europe is to check the agencies with POEA. Be sure they are approved by the government. Most of the time, our kababayans just grab whatever comes their way without checking the background of the agency.
For Alvin, it is also important to know the laws of the country and know your rights as a worker.
For most Filipino drivers working in Europe, their ultimate destination is either the US or Canada. Alvin once considered moving to Canada but eventually changed his mind. “I plan to work longer in Europe as long as I am still fit to work. In the future, I dream of bringing my family here and we will tour Europe together.”