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The Gordian knot is cut – CJEU rules that the Posting of Workers Directive is applicable to road transport

Written by Fieke van Overbeeke[1]

 

On 1 December 2020 the Grand Chamber of the CJEU ruled in the FNV/Van Den Bosch case that the Posting of Workers Directive(PWD) is applicable to the highly mobile labour activities in the road transport sector (C-815/18). This judgment is in line with recently developed EU legislation (Directive 2020/1057), the conclusion of AG Bobek and more generally the ‘communis opinio’. This question however was far from an ‘acte clair’ or ‘acte éclairé’ and the Court’s decision provides an important piece of the puzzle in this difficult matter.

The FNV/Van Den Bosch case dates back all the way to the beginning of 2014, when the Dutch trade union FNV decided to sue the Dutch transport company Van den Bosch for not applying Dutch minimum wages to their Hungarian lorry drivers that were (temporarily) working in and from its premises in the Netherlands. One of the legal questions behind this was whether the Posting of Workers Directive is applicable to the road transport sector, for indeed if it is, the minimum wages of the Netherlands should be guaranteed if they are more favourable than the Hungarian minimum wages (and they are).

At the Court of first instance, the FNV won the case with flying colours. The Court unambiguously considered that the PWD is applicable to road transport. Textual and teleological argumentation methods tied the knot here. The most important one being the fact that Article 1(2) PWD explicitly excludes the maritime transport sector from its scope and remains completely silent regarding the other transport sectors. Therefore the PWD in itself could apply to the road transport sector and thus applies to the case at hand.

Transport company Van Den Bosch appealed and won. The Court of Appeal diametrically opposed its colleague of first instance, favouring merely the principles of the internal market. The Court of Appeal ruled that it would not be in line with the purpose of the PWD to be applied to the case at hand.

The FNV then took the case to the Supreme Court (Hoge Raad), at which both parties stressed the importance of asking preliminary question to the CJEU in this matter. The Supreme Court agreed and asked i.a. whether the PWD applies to road transport and if so, under which specific circumstances.

The CJEU now cuts this Gordian knot in favour of the application of the PWD to the road transport sector. Just as the Court in first instance in the Netherlands, the CJEU employs textual and teleological argumentation methods and highlights the explicit exception of Article 1(2) PWD, meaning that the PWD in itself could apply to road transport.

As regards to the specific circumstances to which the PWD applies, the CJEU sees merit in the principle of the ‘sufficient connection’ (compare CJEU 19 December 2018, C-16/18 Dobersberger, paragraph 31) and rules:

‘A worker cannot, in the light of PWD, be considered to be posted to the territory of a Member State unless the performance of his or her work has a sufficient connection with that territory, which presupposes that an overall assessment of all the factors that characterise the activity of the worker concerned is carried out.’

So in order to apply the PWD to a specific case, there has to be a sufficient connection between worker and temporary working country. In order to carry out this assessment, the CJEU identifies several ‘relevant factors’, such as the characteristics of the provision of services, the nature of the working activities, the degree of connection between working activities of a lorry driver and the territory of each member state and the proportion of the activities compared to the entire service provision in question. Regarding the latter factor, operations involving loading or unloading goods, maintenance or cleaning of the lorries are relevant (provided that they are actually carried out by the driver concerned, not by third parties).

The CJEU also clarifies that the mere fact that a lorry driver, who is posted to work temporarily in and from a Member State, receives their instructions there and starts and finishes the job there is ‘not sufficient in itself to consider that that driver is “posted” to that territory, provided that the performance of that driver’s work does not have a sufficient connection with that territory on the basis of other factors.’

Finally, it is important to note that the Court provides a helping hand regarding three of the four main types of transport operations, namely transit operations, bilateral operations and cabotage operations. A transit operation is defined by the Court as a situation in which ‘a driver who, in the course of goods transport by road, merely transits through the territory of a Member State’. To give an example: a Polish truck driver crosses Germany to deliver goods in the Netherlands. The activities in Germany are regarded as a ‘transit operation’. A bilateral operation is defined as a situation in which ‘a driver carrying out only cross-border transport operations from the Member State where the transport undertaking is established to the territory of another Member State or vice versa’. To give another example, a Polish truck driver delivers goods in Germany and vice versa. The drivers in those operations cannot be regarded as ‘posted’ in the sense of the PWD, given the lack of a sufficient connection.

By referring to Article 2(3) and (6) of Regulation No 1072/2009, a cabotage operation is defined by the CJEU as ‘as national carriage for hire or reward carried out on a temporary basis in a host Member State, in conformity with that regulation, a host Member State being the Member State in which a haulier operates other than the haulier’s Member State of establishment’. For example, a Polish lorry driver carries out transport between two venues within Germany. According to the CJEU, these operations do constitute a sufficient connection and thus will the PWD in principle apply to these operations.

In short, the CJEU gives a green light for transit- and bilateral operations and a red light for cabotage operations. The CJEU however remains silent regarding the fourth important road transport operation: cross-trade operations. A cross-trade operationis a situation in which a lorry driver from country A, provides transport between countries B and C. The sufficient connection within these operations should therefore be assessed only on a case-by-case basis.

At large, the judgment of the CJEU is in line with the road transport legislation that has been adopted recently (Directive 2020/1057). This legislation takes the applicability of the PWD to road transport as a starting point and then provides specific conflict rules to which transport operations the PWD does and does not apply. Just like the judgement of the CJEU, this legislation determines that the PWD is not applicable to transit- and bilateral operations, whereas the PWD is applicable to cabotage operations. Cross-trade operations did not get a specific conflicts rule and therefore the application of the PWD has to be assessed on a case-by-case basis, to which the various identified factors by the Court could help.

All in all, the Gordian knot is cut, yet the assessment of the applicability of the PWD to a specific case will raise considerable difficulties, given de wide margin that has been left open and the rather vague relevant factors that the CJEU has identified. Hard and fast rules however seem to be impossible to impose to the highly mobile and volatile labour activities in the sector, and in that regard the CJEU’s choice of a case by case analysis of a sufficient connection seems to be the lesser of two evils.

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[1] Fieke van Overbeeke, Legal Counsel at the International Institute for International and Foreign Law – the Netherlands and research fellow at the University of Antwerp – Belgium. On 13 December 2018 successfully defended her PhD on the topic of the applicability of the Posting of Workers Directive to the road transport sector. The PhD (in Dutch) is fully available online. Disclaimer: Fieke van Overbeeke has been a  legal expert on the side of the FNV during the trials in the Netherlands and at the CJEU.