Invisibles on the Road

Antonio Muñoz “El Cabrero” and Domingo Vázquez “Chumi” work in the maintenance of the trucks / ANABLE ALFARO

According to INE (Spanish Statistics National Institute), there were 911.300 people in Spain working in the transportation sector in 2016, 553.700 of them on the road. Truck drivers’ work is essential for national economy. Nevertheless, they generally go unnoticed and few of them actually know the extent to which their profession is difficult and risky. This is the story of three of them.

July, the 4th, 2016: José Alfaro gets up, like every day, at 6:00 AM. It won’t be an extremely hot day, but indeed sunny. After having breakfast at home, he heads towards the industrial state where he parks his white Arocs Euro 6. He jumps in the cab and prepares for another day on the road. He’ll be transporting pipeclay from the quarry in Alcalá de Guadaira towards the metro-extension construction site near the Pablo de Olavide station. He has 25 years of driving behind him. As he says, “experience is always an asset.”

The same morning, Juan Manuel, his younger brother, opens the door to his indigo Mercedes Benz Actros 450 eurotec 6 cab. He settles into his leather seat, molded after many years of work. He starts the engine and is on his way to a quarry in La Puebla de Cazalla, where he’ll pick up the limestone he’ll have to unload some kilometres further away, at the Portland concrete factory. With four tonnes, one must pay attention to every movement. Blinking in the wrong moment may mean overturning.

Just as José and Juan Manuel, Rafael Mateo, an old friend of both, gets in his Mercedes Benz 2546 Actros, whose trailer will be loaded up with 32,000 kilograms of fertilizer he must deliver to several farms in Seville’s Campiña (countryside). He has just started his work day and he still faces nine to 10 driving hours. He won’t be home before half past seven in the afternoon. “It’s different now that my children have grown up and I can see them more often. When they were kids, whenever I arrived from work, they were already asleep,” he says.

These three truck drivers are part of an economic sector, the transportation sector, which adds more than 4% to Spanish GDP (PIB). This figure grows every year as intercommunication and trading gain relevance. Road transportation makes up 60% of said GDP, compared to the remaining 40% made up by air, rail and maritime transportation. According to the last report by CETMO Foundation in 2006 (Occidental Mediterranean Transports Study Centre), goods transportation on the road (TMC in Spanish) had a prominent economic weight within transportation in general, and in relation to the Spanish economy as a whole, as an instrument to face economic globalisation. “If we didn’t exist, nothing could be moved,” José sums up.

Juan Manuel Alfaro on his truck / ANABEL ALFARO

There are numerous myths around truck drivers, whom we picture as rough, solitary men, enthusiastic about nude calendars and as Camela fans, whose music they listen to incessantly and turned all the way up: “Sueño contigo ¿qué me has dado? Sin tu cariño…” For José, this is just a stereotype, and his friend Rafael agrees: “I’m not saying they don’t exist, but they must be just a minority. I am a father. I’m lucky to come back home to my wife everyday. I used to spend a lot of time on the road and never saw such a thing. We’re normal people, just like you.”

Truck drivers can be classified in two big groups: those who work in long journeys, or long route transportation, and those who drive short routes. The route of their trucks directs their route of their lives. “You know when you’re leaving, but you don’t know when you’ll come back. Your life is your truck,” Rafael explains. “Days and days and days go by and you cannot see your family. You leave your children and wife behind. There’s no amount of money that pays for that,” he states without hesitation.

A truck driver drives, on average, nine to ten hours everyday. Law forces them to stop for at least 45 minutes, every four and a half hours. They can drive up to 47 hours per week. Many of them go 800 kilometres in a single work day. It is not only the long driving hours that make their job hard but also many additional factors, such as tiring waiting times, fatigue and eyestrain, or the stress caused by the tight delivery deadlines, given that other industries rely on them. Also, they must count on the full performance of their vehicles, which cannot always be assured, especially in the case of small businesses. Their job is always performed under the continuous threat of the road. “When you’re transporting such a great weight in the back of the truck, a simple gesture can change everything. You can’t be distracted or make a little mistake. It may cost you your life and the life of many others,” Juan Manuel explains with a grave countenance. It is not the first time he thinks about these words. “That’s exactly what is not valued about us: the extent of the responsibility that’s in our hands,” Rafael insists.

José, Juan Manuel and Rafael are 54, 48 and 56 years old. respectively. They’ve all had their entire professional life on the asphalt, having shared all kinds of experiences, even the hardest ones. “I have seen many accidents. I have taken a couple of colleagues out of their cabs after an accident. I have had some accidents myself,” tells Juan Manuel.

Juan Manuel Alfaro loading it at a quarry outside La Puebla de Cazalla, Sevilla / ANABEL ALFARO

Many of these accidents are not considered as work-related accidents, but as traffic accidents. Taking into consideration the precarious conditions of many of the roads they travel and the pressure they endure –as the transportation sector is mainly managed by private companies– the result is an undervalued collective of workers that receive a considerably low salary in spite of the risks and responsibilities they accept, most of the time with no support or recognition. That is to say, they are invisible men. “There’s brotherhood between us. If nobody worries about us, then we’ll have to take care of each other, I guess,” José says.

At around 11:00 AM in full sunlight on the 4th of July, José is about to merge onto the S40 bypass highway from A376 highway, which connects Montequinto neighbourhood (South-East of Seville) to Utrera. That’s when his truck turns over the left side. The window shatters and the truck slides over the road a few metres. José is miraculously still alive inside. He manages to step out of the truck and turns the engine down, trying to avoid its explosion. A man that witnessed the accident reaches out to help him, seeing him gravely wounded, rendered white by the blood loss. José’s arm is horribly damaged. The man makes a tourniquet around his arm that will save his life. The ambulance soon arrives and transports José to Virgen del Rocio hospital, just 10 minutes away, where he will have his left arm amputated. His truck will stay there for a few more hours, sinister evidence of what has happened. His family waits for him to wake up from the state of anaesthesia in the emergency room. “How will he react when he knows?” they wonder.

The story of José, who is my uncle, just as the story of Juan Manuel, who is my father, or the one of Rafael, an old family friend, an old friend of mine, is the story of many truck drivers who, in exchange for a low salary, in exchange for the risk of losing an arm, keep their country’s transportation arteries working. Almost nobody notices them but their task and their daily effort are essential for our society to function and for it to continue growing. •