Thursday, January 31, 2008

Poland tries to defuse truck-jam crisis on eastern EU border

The Polish government on Monday tried to defuse a crisis on the country's eastern EU border, where truckers are facing days of jams amid a wage protest by customs officers.

The road 30 kilometres (24 miles) from Poland's Terespol crossing with Belarus was completely blocked Monday. Furious at having to wait days to cross the border, truckers parked across the road near the crossing, refusing to let anyone pass.

"This is the fourth day I've been waiting here and I've moved just a kilometre and a half. Since yesterday I haven't even moved one metre," explained Sergei, a trucker from Kazakhstan, en route for his homeland. The 50-something driver declined to give his family name.

"I understand the Polish customs agents want to earn more money, but nobody is paying attention to our situation, nobody is helping us," he said bitterly.

"I'm not paid for the hours of waiting and my employer is losing money. Everyone is losing in this case."

Poland's Prime Minister Donald Tusk visited the nearby town of Biala Podlaska Monday to examine the situation up close and launched an "ardent appeal" for customs officers to return to work.

Rather than formally go out on strike, customs officers began earlier this month to take holiday or sick-leave to underscore their wage demands, resulting in backups of thousands of lorries.

They are looking for wage hikes of up to 1,500 zlotys (420 euros, 620 dollars), while the government has proposed just 500 zlotys. The current starting salary for a Polish customs officer is 1,300 zlotys per month.

The protesting officers also want better legal protection against accusations of corruption and improved retirement benefits. The government has vowed to satisfy those demands in the coming months.

So far two drivers have died stuck in the gridlock, one from a heart attack and the other after his vehicle's cabin caught fire. Massive queues of lorries on Poland's frontier with Ukraine, Belarus and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad continued to grow Monday.

At the Dorohusk crossing with Ukraine, around 1,000 trucks were queued in a 40-kilometre-long tailback, with an estimated 100-hour-long wait for passage.

Furious truckers have threatened to block the Polish capital Warsaw in order to force a resolution to the crisis. Drivers' union officials said they will take a decision on Tuesday following talks with Interior Minister Grzegorz Schetyna.

Schetyna, who is also Poland's deputy prime minister, vowed to resolve the crisis on the border "within two to three days."

Customs procedures were beefed up along Poland's eastern border with non-EU Ukraine, Belarus and Russia after the country was one of nine states to join Europe's Schengen free travel zone on December 21.

While members of the 24-nation Schengen zone drop internal border controls, countries on its outer rim are duty-bound to boost checks with non-members.

Tusk said Monday that only fully-qualified customs officers could meet the requirements for processing border traffic and that police or soldiers could not step in to speed-up border traffic.