By Eva Manez
ON THE ROAD FROM VALENCIA TO PERPIGNAN (Reuters) - Working as a truck driver has not always been easy for Begona Urmeneta but she loves her job and says Spain needs people like her more than ever as Europe struggles with an acute shortage of hauliers.
The 59-year-old divorced mother of two and grandmother of two has been driving long-distance lorries transporting everything from fish to hazardous substances for 26 years.
"You definitely have to prove yourself time and time again... When I started, they would say... 'Begona is a girl, she can't carry a fridge, she can't move the pallets'...
"If it makes them happy, let them say it. Because up to now, I can and if I can't, I ask for help," said Urmeneta, who is from the region of Valencia in eastern Spain.
Women account for only 4% of truckers in Spain, compared with 20% of taxi or bus drivers. The government has ordered a review of measures with a view to attracting more women and a younger generation into a sector where the work can be physically demanding and often lonely, taking drivers far from home and family for long periods of time.
With the average age of a lorry driver now 50 in Spain, Urmeneta believes that within 10 years, there could be none at all to transport the country's goods.
"Today's shortage of 10,000 to 20,000 truck drivers in Spain is nothing, (it's) the tip of the iceberg," she told a Reuters reporter who rode alongside her on a 32-hour trip transporting resins from Torrent, Valencia, to Perpignan, France.
The long hours on the road away from home are no deterrent for Urmeneta, who keeps a sign on her windscreen that reads "Trucker Woman - my profession, my passion".
A shortage of hauliers is by no means confined to Spain, as demonstrated by disruptions in supply chains experienced earlier this year as the global economy began to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic and the lockdowns that it prompted.
Europe alone faces a shortage of around 400,000 truck drivers, according to the European Road Hauliers Association.
In Spain, the national truck drivers' association, Fenadismer, called off a three-day strike planned for the week leading up to Christmas after the government agreed to their demand that drivers would no longer have to load and unload goods from trucks.
Fenadismer deputy head, Juan Jose Gil, said he was hopeful of improved conditions in the sector due to labour reforms in Spain that empower unions in pay talks and to a new European Union directive which seeks to equalise conditions for transport companies across the 27-nation bloc.
Urmeneta was less confident, saying she expected fewer young people to be drawn to such demanding work that offered relatively poor pay.
"Factory jobs are much more attractive. People are able to go home every day," she said.
(Additional reporting by Oscar Corrons and Emma Pinedo, Writing by Emma Pinedo; Editing by Aislinn Laing and Gareth Jones)