I am innocent and our system is clean !
Roland Jost is steadfast in his belief that he has done nothing wrong, his Group respects the European transportation legislation. All operations are legal and the drivers from Eastern Europe are treated well and paid well. You can have a look around, nothing to see here.
Charged by the Federal Prosecutor’s Office for social dumping and human trafficking, Roland Jost, head of the transportation company Jost Group, takes the floor to give his side of the story. In simple terms, he refutes every accusation and gives his assurance that he is a law-abiding citizen complying with European legislation.
Roland Jost, the head of the transportation company currently in turmoil following an investigation into, among other things, social dumping and human trafficking, does not often speak out. However, the crisis that his company is going through has prompted him to grant this interview and meet with us in Liège, on the edge of the Meuse river, accompanied by André Renette and Adrien Masset, his two lawyers. Jost Group today accounts for 1,500 HGVs (Heavy Goods Vehicles), 150 million kilometres travelled each year and a turnover of €350 million. It is safe to say that Jost is everywhere. On the E40, between the editorial offices of L’Echo and his lawyers’ offices we counted 13 Jost Group HGVs over a 90-kilometre span motorway, which equates to one Jost HGV every 6.9 kilometres. “You are everywhere” we said to the transporter as an introduction. “There should have been more of them, you know”, he replied promptly, before bursting into laughter – proof that he has not lost his sense of humour. The head of the transportation group is referring of course, to the Federal Prosecutor’s decision to seize 240 HGVs. Both sides reached an agreement just a few hours earlier, with Jost Group agreeing to pay a €7 million deposit in exchange for the seizure to be lifted. Roland Jost can breathe a bit and business can continue as usual.
The transportation group owner has kept a long silence about the ongoing case, but decided it was time to give us his version the truth, under the supervision of his lawyers who, admittedly, hardly intervened. “I’m convinced I’m innocent. I am not saying that I have absolutely nothing to be criticised for, you can always find an isolated petty incident, mistakes, etc. I am not calling myself a saint, but our system is, in my opinion, absolutely clean.” Roland Jost will not be deterred. “The law is on my side,” he assures us. ‘Everything we read in European transport legislation is clear, there are no doubts, no lines are being crossed, that is all there is to it.’ That’s his side of the story.
Roland Jost started working alongside his father in 1981. The family transport company, at the time, had around ten HGVs. Five years later his father passed away and he took over the reins of the company. In 1989, he started up a passenger transportation business and developed the two business activities in parallel, before dropping the cargo transportation operations in order to fully devote himself to passenger transportation. Why this choice? “Within the passenger transportation sector, I said to myself that I was already a large business among smaller ones, while for the transportation of goods I thought that I would never become one of the major players.” On this particular point, Roland Jost was proved wrong.
Through purchases and takeovers, the man continued to grow his business, eventually reselling the shares of his bus company to Keolis in order to focus on cargo transportation. This continued to develop, up until the current situation we see today. Roland Jost and three of his employees were jailed for three weeks just before the summer of 2017 due to involvement in the Federal Prosecutor’s investigation into social dumping and human trafficking.
However, the transporter has never made any great mystery of how he and the company operate. It has been open and transparent about its employment of drivers from Eastern European countries (1,368 to be precise); no, its Romanian subsidiary Skiptrans is not a letterbox company, 79 people work there; and yes, this system is legal and inevitable for anyone who wants to operate in the international transportation sector. “Working with Romanian drivers is a very common practice. I don’t know if everyone works as respectfully as I do,” the transporter explains, before embarking on a small pro-European spiel. “Europe has chosen to open its borders. From country to country, there is a differential in the level of social charges”, he explains, before specifying that this differential is 15% in terms of the overall cost of a Romanian driver as opposed to that of a Belgian driver. “If we want to operate using international transportation - and this is, after all, the majority of our business – it is a necessity to resort to outsourcing from the eastern countries,” he says, before warning: “and if you are 15% above the market price, you are out of business. And if we no longer have international work, it will have far-reaching repercussions on the national level. The customer does not want to have a different provider for national and international transportation.”
This is the reason Jost group created the Skiptrans subsidiary in Romania in 2008. “It operates independently, receives its operational orders from the parent company and is responsible for recruiting drivers, getting them started, keeping to schedules and allocating loads to HGVs”, he says. When we tell him that the Federal Prosecutor’s Office claims that this company is nothing more than a letterbox, Roland Jost became furious. There are 79 employees working there, he explains as one of his lawyers turns the screen of his computer towards us to show us a picture of the entire Romanian team in front of the building in question.
Today, the Federal Prosecutor is charging Jost with social dumping, for underpaying his drivers and for the avoidance of social security contributions in Belgium. During the investigation, the Federal Prosecutor estimated the missing earnings to be some €65 million: €45 million in remuneration not paid to drivers and €20 million in social contributions not paid to the NSSO. “I deny that, it’s pure invention. The vast majority of Romanian drivers travel internationally, which means going from country A to country B. It can get a little absurd, if I go from the farthest point of Belgium, cross the French border and then drive a kilometre further, it is considered international transportation. However, the Federal Public Prosecutor says that these people work in Belgium. That is not true, and we have everything we need to prove it. It’s all about interpretation,” says Roland Jost. To his left and right, his two lawyers nod in agreement.
Convinced of his innocence
To support his statement, the head of the transportation company explains to us that the authorities verified 38,000 trips within Belgium and only noted 20 offences back in 2016. “Calculate that as a percentage, you will see that it does not amount to very much! We’ll let you do the math.” He insists there was an error, a miscalculation in the schedule and nothing else, and keeps pushing the issue. “If I don’t work with drivers from Eastern Europe today, someone else will be working with them tomorrow. In the meantime, we are continuing to invest huge amounts of money in Belgium. If tomorrow a Romanian, Pole or Lithuanian takes my place, he will not invest a single Euro in Belgium.’ It should be noted that, in addition to the Eastern European drivers, Jost Group works with 900 drivers from Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.
Finally, when asked what the Federal Prosecutor is accusing him of, Roland Jost pauses a minute. “Things we don’t understand. Frankly, why would I get myself into a situation like this?”
All the same, you pay your drivers from Eastern Europe pitiful wages, we continue. We are not the ones saying this, it is the Federal Prosecutor. An undercover policeman who was hired as a driver by the subsidiary Skiptrans said he was paid between €550 and €650 for a month of work, sometimes working 18 hours a day. The transporter’s response is quick. “Our Eastern European drivers are now paid between €2,400 and €2,500 net per month. The part that the Public Prosecutor is right about is that the basic net salary in Romania is €500. The rest are housing accommodation bonuses. All in all, it comes up to between €2,400 and €2,500 net”, explains Roland Jost before laying out his arguments based on a survey of his drivers. A driver who is frugal, knowing that Jost provides facilities to rest, cook and wash laundry, can live on €500 per month. “When he returns home at the end of the month, he has €1,900 in his pocket while the average salary in Romania is €500. Imagine, when he returns to Romania, he is a king!” OK, we’re getting this. But still, the undercover policeman who says he was paid between €550 and €650 and had to work up to 18 hours a day, for eight consecutive weeks, what do you make of that? “You may note that he is a liar, write it down. He is a liar! We have all the proof, from A + B, of what he was paid. He earned €2,200 net. We investigated his claims and found out that he did not even work 80% of the time allowed. The rest is a matter of perspective. When a driver stops at 8 p.m. for his evening break and at 10 p.m., on a bit of a whim, moves his vehicle 100 m, it’s as if he hasn’t taken his rest period. And as long as he hasn’t done his 10-hour straight rest period, that counts as zero. That is what he did, and I can assure you that he did so voluntarily, just to build a good case against us. This is something I find revolting.” In any event, Roland Jost and his lawyers are saying that this strategy allowed the Federal Prosecutor to say that the undercover driver had worked 24 hours in one day. “Either he stopped his break voluntarily, or he is a poor driver who knows nothing about the legislation.” That’s his side of the story.
Rest in the cabin
And what exactly is this matter of human trafficking? This time, the lawyers take over. It is all a question of resting time, in fact. A distinction must be made between daily rest and weekly rest, explains André Renette. Currently, in the view of European legislation, daily rest and reduced weekly rest periods (between 24 and 45 hours) can be taken in the HGV’s cabin. There remains a legal dispute as to whether the normal weekly rest time (45 hours) can be taken in the cabin. As the legislative texts say nothing in this respect, the Court of Justice of the European Union believes, at this stage, that these rest periods cannot be taken in the cabin.
It is for this reason that Jost Group has set up rest areas for its drivers in various places throughout Belgium (Herstal, Malmedy, Battice, Ghlin, Waarloos, Kiledrecht, Trilogiport). These have buildings with toilets, beds, kitchens and washing machines. These locations, Roland Jost’s lawyers say, have been approved by the authorities.
It is clear that this prevention of human trafficking does not go over well with Roland Jost. “How do you engage in human trafficking with people you cannot control? Imagine this: I put a driver in a HGV, he leaves my premises and that’s the end of that. He is following orders because he wants to earn a living, but if he is mistreated, he will leave. You know, I can’t even stop him from returning home with the HGV,” says Roland Jost. He turns to his two lawyers. There are no complaints in the case and the Romanian trade unions support Jost Group. Roland Jost continues. His drivers use the facilities made available to them to clean their laundry, take showers and eat a bit, but most of the time they prefer to sleep in the cabin, where they have their own possessions and routine. “I have just communicated internally that they should sleep in the buildings made available to them, but I cannot force them.”
And personally, how do you get through such a crisis? “It is very difficult to be persecuted when I know that we have done absolutely nothing wrong. I continue to fight because I believe in my life’s work, even if that is a big statement. I stand by that and I will not give up. I’m sure we will win in the end.”
Today, the company head is pleased with the loyalty of his staff, workers and customers. Following an agreement with the investigating judge in charge of the case, Jost Group was able to pay a deposit in exchange for lifting the seizure. For the transporter, relief is the reigning emotion. And the desire to continue to provide services to its customers while awaiting the end of the investigation. Adrien Masset, one of Roland Jost’s lawyers, indicated that he expects the possibility to defend Jost Group rigorously and is confident of victory for Jost. “When my customers heard that 240 of our HGVs had been seized for human trafficking, the phone was ringing off the hook. Fortunately, there are a lot of people who trust us, who know us enough and who ask why Jost would suddenly become a crook”, concludes our interlocutor, who only wants to return to his HGVs.
Nicolas Keszei, l’Echo, 6 April 2019