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Seats at the table

COMMENT: Through consultation, the Federal Government is steadily lifting road transport out of the dark days.

As we head into another busy Christmas period, it’s safe to say it’s been a challenging year for owner-drivers. While many industries are shutting down as we head towards the end of the year, demand in road transport is ramping up – and so is the supply chain pressure on drivers and transport operators.

The lead-up to the busiest season for road transport is a daunting and exhausting prospect following a string of tough years. Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen drivers work longer hours than ever before, all while having to put themselves and their families at risk to keep supplies moving around the country. Prior to the pandemic we faced devastating bushfires, drivers and operators once again stepping up to help communities in need.

The past 12 months, of course, has had its own unique challenges.

At the beginning of the year we saw supply chains crippled as COVID exploded through workplaces, with workers not guaranteed free rapid antigen tests, and many forced to go to work sick. Under the Morrison government, workers’ concerns and warnings about protecting supply chains were ignored at every turn.

Continued flooding across the eastern states has further stretched drivers and operators already under immense pressure. Drivers have had to deal with blocked roads, disruptions to rest areas and, for those in states not flood-affected, widespread stand-downs. 

Fuel and operating prices have sky-rocketed, bringing with it the need to push back on supply chain demands, all of which can introduce immense pressure to drive tired, overload, cut back on maintenance or take risks on the road to make ends meet. Devastatingly, over 150 people have died on our roads in truck crashes this year.

We know that these external events and pressures – which disproportionately impact road transport compared to other industries – will keep happening. 

But by working and fighting together, this year we’ve also seen huge breakthroughs in our fight for a safer and fairer road transport industry, that will allow drivers and transport operators to respond to these kinds of crises and financial pressures more safely.

Fair standards

In May this year, as the newly minted Federal Government came into power, we have had our most significant advance in years towards a safer, more viable and sustainable industry.

At the beginning of September, Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke announced the Federal Government’s intention to empower the Fair Work Commission to set fair standards for the entire road transport industry.

Building on Senator Glenn Sterle’s comprehensive two-year inquiry hearing from dozens of road transport workers, Burke’s commitment will save trucking jobs, businesses and lives. It will do that by ensuring that those entities reaping the economic benefit from the industry – major retailers like Aldi, the big manufacturers, miners and the like pay their fair share in transport supply chains and do not engage in contract bullying tactics so that standards lift throughout the industry.

This commitment would not have been possible without the unprecedented unity of our industry. Leading the charge were workers, with hundreds of owner-drivers, employee drivers, gig workers and couriers joining convoys around the country calling for reform.

An industry round-table ahead of the Federal Government’s Jobs and Skills Summit drew together a cross-industry coalition calling for reform which included the Transport Workers Union, the Australian Road Transport Industrial Organisation, NatRoad, the National Road Freighters Association, state transport associations, transport operators like Toll, Linfox, ACFS and FBT Transwest, and even supply chain clients Woolworths and Coles.

Following years of campaigning, gig giants Uber and DoorDash have even backed in the need for reform. Though they may seem unlikely allies, they too now face the threat of being undercut out of business by new entrants in the lawless gig economy which would accelerate the downward spiral of standards and make it even harder to run a sustainable business in transport. Standing shoulder to shoulder, we can turn the tide and inject sustainability back into the operation with new laws that back in a level playing field.

It could not come at a more urgent time. Crucially, the new system will apply to all sectors including the tsunami of the gig economy. The gig economy today is not just food delivery riders and rideshare – it has now entered the heart of freight.

Piece rates

In 2022, we’ve seen FedEx become the first traditional transport company casualty of the Amazon Effect in dragging down standards.

FedEx’s appalling proposal was to bring in owner-drivers on piece rates, made to deliver as many as 93 packages per 10-hour shift – the equivalent of one every six minutes or risk being sacked. Forced to compete with bottom-feeder Amazon, this trend towards shocking conditions on a take-it-or-leave-it basis is the greatest threat our industry has every faced.

This is the Amazon effect in practice, and the gig-style model threatens to effect other major transport companies, followed by the rest of the industry, if it’s not reined in.

But the Federal Government’s commitment will mean Amazon would no longer be able to import the same deadly tactics it’s used to attack traditional operators in other countries, dragging down industry standards and gaining unfair and dangerous economic advantage by exploiting transport workers through on-demand gig systems.

Between natural disasters, the lingering effects of the pandemic and operating costs, it’s been a tough year in 2022. But as we head towards 2023, there is hope on the horizon for a road transport industry where all can prosper from a level playing field.

We finally have a Federal Government that is prepared to listen to workers and give you a seat at the table. Our job now is to make sure it follows through on its commitments.

In 2022 we have become closer than ever to a safer, fairer industry with Labor’s commitment to enforceable minimum standards. In 2023 we will need to ramp up our efforts to make this a reality.  

*Michael Kaine is the national secretary of the Transport Workers
Union of Australia. Contact Michael at: NSW Transport Workers Union, Transport House, 188-390 Sussex Street, Sydney, NSW 2000.

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