Truckers struggle with gas prices and working conditions
When a tired truck driver who had left Kita-Kyushu, Fukuoka Prefecture, arrived at his destination in Hiroshima Prefecture, it was still before dawn.
Thus, the driver in his forties, who had been behind the wheel for 50 hours, had to wait until the factory opened in the morning before he could unload the cargo.
He spotted a nearby convenience store that was equipped with a specialized parking space for trucks, so he pulled into the parking lot to wait and maybe catch some much-needed sleep by taking a nap on the bed behind the driver’s seat.
But when he stopped, he heard a hoarse noise behind him: his rear bumper scraped against a ramp at the entrance.
“My vehicle was probably overloaded,” the driver said, recalling the crash in March last year. “The cargo was brought in with a forklift, so it’s hard for me to estimate its actual weight. I was too exhausted to pay attention to that.
Government guidelines on working conditions for lorry drivers state that vehicle drivers must “rest for 30 minutes once every four hours of driving” and can only be “on duty for a maximum of 16 hours per day”.
But the man said smaller delivery providers do not obey these rules.
“They rarely apply to contractors,” he said. “Freight owners frequently call my cell phone, asking me where I’m running now and urging me to move the goods quickly.”
Truckers like him have been striving every day to support Japan’s logistics system for more than two years amid the novel coronavirus crisis, burning the candle on both sides.
But they have increasingly found themselves plagued by long working hours and low wages as smaller operators compete for delivery deals, as well as rising fuel costs that further burden the burden. And that made a tough job even bumpier.
This driver’s records show that after unloading his cargo in Hiroshima prefecture, he continued on to Okayama, Mie, Gunma and Ibaraki prefectures.
He returned home to Aichi Prefecture in the early morning of the sixth day of his trip.
He has been driving medium to large trucks since he was 20 years old. When the accident happened, he was working for a small transport company near Nagoya. He now works for another transit company in Aichi Prefecture, transporting goods at night for a monthly salary of 300,000 yen ($2,160).
But he “can’t save money” on that salary, so he recently found a part-time day job in a distribution warehouse with an hourly wage.
He said his health has checked out so far, but he feels worried about the future given his precarious work environment.
FUEL PRICES RISING IN STRINGENT COMPETITION
The intense competition faced by truckers stems from the restructuring of the transportation ecosystem in the 1990s.
According to the Ministry of Transport and other sources, regulations that were relaxed in 1990 caused an increase in the number of delivery service providers throughout the country. The number of suppliers reached 63,000 in fiscal year 2007, compared to 40,000 in fiscal year 1990, and has remained stable since.
Small, small and medium enterprises with up to 300 employees represent more than 99% of them. They desperately fight over contracts, hampering their ability to negotiate with clients over fees.
In addition, commissions are deducted from their outsourced sales.
A man in his 40s who runs a transportation company with about 30 employees in Aichi Prefecture lamented the situation in which small businesses find themselves.
“Few freight owners pay fuel surcharges,” the president said. “Even starting fares are not set for trucks, unlike taxis.”
Truckers routinely struggle with lower wages and tight time constraints.
Data compiled by the Japan Trucking Association based on government documents reveals that the average annual income of drivers of large transport trucks was 4.54 million yen in 2020, 330,000 yen less than the average for all industries.
Their annual working hours averaged 2,532 for 2020, 432 hours more than the figure for all industries.
And soaring fuel prices have dealt a further blow to truckers already struggling with intense competition.
The trucking company’s president said soaring gasoline prices were hitting them at a time when far fewer requests were coming in for deliveries of event-related materials.
Sporting events and other festive events have been canceled one after another over the past two years due to the pandemic.
The company’s light oil consumption amounts to 30,000 liters per month. The purchase price of oil soared to 127 yen a liter last spring, about 40 yen more than two years earlier, despite a government subsidy.
This means that fuel expenses have increased by 1.2 million yen per month, according to the man.
Watching the daily reports on the weak yen and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the employer predicted that the situation would become “more and more difficult”.
“Crude oil won’t get cheaper anytime soon given the current circumstances, but the goods are still waiting to be delivered,” he said. “Companies that fail to raise funds will go bankrupt because profits are being suppressed.”