November 1, 2004

Maersk Drivers Face Repression and Abuse in El Salvador


Alert: "Unionists Assassinated"   


  • 16-hour shifts are common.
  • One round trip haul can take up to six days, but the drivers are paid just $91.43 per trip.  Many drivers are earning just $15.24 a day, or $0.95 an hour, for a 16-hour shift. 
  •  The drivers have no health insurance, no Social Security pension, no truck insurance.  Any damage to the container must be paid by the worker.
  • Maersk drivers were obligated to take lie detector tests during which they were questioned if they were criminals or trade union members. 
  • Freedom of association is violently repressed. When the Maersk drivers tried to organize in 2001, the company responded with a vicious union-busting campaign, labeling the workers "terrorists," and firing and blacklisting at least 100 drivers.  The drivers refer to the "Maersk Mafia."


Until a few years ago, Maersk owned not only the containers, but also the trucks, and the drivers were Maersk employees.  At that point Maersk said it would no longer own the trucks and hire the drivers, but rather would only contract the work out.

The drivers are now hired by various subcontractors.  Maersk no doubt wanted to create the appearance that the company no longer had any direct control of or responsibility to the workers.  But it was just an illusion.  The drivers work for and haul containers owned by a company called Bridge Intermodal Transportation S.A. (BIT), which just happens to be a wholly-owned subsidiary of Maersk—and it is from BIT/Maersk that the drivers take their orders.

There are approximately 6,000 freight drivers in El Salvador.  Around 2,500 of the drivers own their own trucks, with the remainder divided into small, informal companies of 20 to 25 trucks with multiple owners, and larger legal companies with over 30 trucks.  Only about 10 percent of the drivers are employed by these legal companies.  Estimates put the price of a container truck in El Salvador at around $75,000.

Drivers show up at the subcontractors' office at 8:00 a.m. on Monday morning asking for work.  Most of the time they have to wait one or even two days before they get a trip.  The subcontractor gives the driver money for gas and for Customs-related charges.


 The driver then goes to the Free Trade Zone to pick up the container for the trip to Puerto Cortes in Honduras.  This trip typically takes 11 to 12 hours, including the stop at the border for Customs control.  However, if there are any problems with the truck's documents, this could result in a full day's delay waiting for Treasury employees to arrive at the border control.  Private security guards hired by the subcontractors accompany the drivers to protect the container.  The guards insist that the drivers not stop along the way, not even to use the bathroom, forcing them to drive eight to nine hours straight.  There have been reports that when the truckers encounter a roadblock thrown up by bandits, the security guard turns his rifle on the driver demanding that he smash through the blockade.

Unloading the containers at Puerto Cortes, the largest port in Central America, is very slow and time consuming. There are always long cues of trucks which are backed up for one, two or even three days waiting to be unloaded.

The drivers are paid 800 colones (8.75 colones = $1.00 US), or $91.43 per trip.  The gas is paid by the subcontractor.

The $91.43 is very little money, when you consider that the round trip from El Salvador to Puerto Cortes takes between three days minimum and up to six days. Seventy-five percent of the time the drivers have to return to El Salvador empty, without a container.  For those who decide to remain in Puerto Cortes until they get a container load back to El Salvador, the wait can be four, five, even six days—all without pay.

So, the drivers are earning just $15.24 to $30.48 a day.  And these are not eight-hour days.  In fact, the drivers are with their trucks at all times.  If they are working 16 hours a day, their real wages would be just $0.95 to $1.90 an hour.


Also, the drivers have no health insurance, no Social Security pension, and no truck insurance in case of an accident.  (Only 10 percent of the drivers, employed by the larger legal companies, are covered under El Salvador's Social Security health and pension plans, but of course, their health plan does not apply to all the time they must spend in Honduras.)

 While waiting for days in Puerto Cortes, the drivers sleep in their trucks and have to pay $1.00 to bathe in a local guest house—but they have to bring their own soap, towels and toilet paper.  The drivers spend as little as possible on food, but food costs still come to $4.00, $5.00, $6.00 a day.  The truckers are constantly forced to find ways to save money, so they stock up on tap water, which they bottle at home, hoping it will last out the trip.  It's too expensive for them to phone home while they are on the road, so they forego that.  Some drivers actually search the woods for herbs to treat their illnesses, since they have no health insurance.

There are a lot of dangers on the road, and police corruption.  The ports are dangerous, and there is always the risk of being robbed.  The ports are also full of disease-carrying mosquitoes.

But the most annoying problem is the bribes that must be paid to the police in Honduras and Nicaragua.  The police—who themselves are looking to supplement their meager incomes—can always come up with some supposed "violation" and then threaten to take your documents to the local police office, which could result in another day or two of delay.  In the end, it's cheaper to pay the bribes.  The bribes average about $6.00, and it adds up.

The trip from El Salvador to Puerto Barrios in Guatemala is also paid at 800 colones, or $91.43, while the haul to the Acajutla port in El Salvador is paid at 200 to 300 colones, or $22.86 to $34.29, since this trip typically takes just one or two days.

The six-day round trip from San Salvador to Managua is paid at $115.  This includes two days spent at the border due to the very slow customs bureaucracy.

After a six-day trip, and accounting for expenses and bribes, the workers report that they return home having earned an average of just $50 for the entire week—an 80-hour workweek.  So the take-home wage would only be 63 cents an hour.  And remember, the drivers have no health insurance or pension.  If it is a bad trip, some workers report returning home with as little as $15 for the week.  In some cases, conditions are so bad that the drivers are forced to siphon diesel fuel from their tanks to sell it for a few dollars.

And it is getting worse, since lately the prices offered per trip have been falling.  The three, four or more-day trip to Puerto Cortes used to pay $91.43, but now what is being offered is as little as $60. 

Back in the spring of 2001, the drivers sought a meeting with Maersk to initiate discussions on improving working conditions.  Three letters were sent by the workers, all of which were completely ignored by the company.  The drivers then decided on a Day of Action to get Maersk to sit down with them.  On August 8, 2001, 300 truckers blocked the borders with Honduras and Guatemala.  The action was enormously effective, shutting down at least half of all traffic in and out of El Salvador.

Maersk's response was to fire and blacklist over 100 drivers in September 2001.  Maersk used the tragic events of 9-11 to go after the workers, labeling them terrorists.  Any worker even suspected of wanting a union would be immediately terminated.  The atmosphere was very tense, and hundreds of workers had to drop their union demands and silently return to work.  Many of the truckers still speak of the "Maersk Mafia"—meaning that the company acts with the same fear tactics as the mob.



To drive for BIT/Maersk the workers had to endure lie detector tests administered by the company, during which they were asked such questions as:  Are you a pedophile?  Are you a criminal?  Are you a union member?

The drivers report that their wages are lower now than they were in 2001.

The drivers' demands were very modest--and in line with Salvadoran law.  The workers were asking for an increase in pay per trip, since labor laws in El Salvador and throughout Central America, require payment for all "actual work time" meaning any time that one is under orders of or working for ones employer.  By law, the drivers' legal working time clearly includes not only the 11 hours hauling the freight, but also the days of waiting time at Puerto Cortes and the return.

The drivers also sought a small per diem to cover food and lodging expenses while they were held over at Puerto Cortes and other ports.

(Although the Transport Workers Union of El Salvador (SNTITSC) does not yet have its legal recognition from the Salvadoran government, they have a good core base of about 300 members.  After CENTRA collapsed, CEAL picked up the work.)