TWU response to Gottliebsen commentary

The Australian, September 26, 2016: Tony Sheldon

Transport Workers Union National Secretary Tony Sheldon has responded to my commentary on the decision of the small business ombudsman decision to endorse my commentary (Small business ombudsman lays truth about trucking tribunal bare, September 23) on the actions of the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal. I obviously strongly disagree with the thrust of the TWU commentary but I believe my readers are entitled to read it in full unamended. I am adding a small commentary at the conclusion.

Tony Sheldon: “Kate Carnell’s report on the impact of an Order on minimum rates for truck drivers vindicates nothing apart from the sad reality that there are some who refuse to acknowledge there is a problem in the transport industry.

The supposedly independent Small Business Ombudsman, blames specific suicides, bankruptcies and other hardship on the rates Order — despite the fact that the Order was in place for just two weeks.

It should not take a journalist or any other discerning reader five minutes, let alone 50 years, to spot what is at play here: a stitch-up.

Ms Carnell, a former Liberal Party Chief Minister of ACT, had already made up her mind about what would be in the report before her inquiry even got going. She spoke about its “devastation” several times on radio before her inquiry began its work. She set up inquiry sessions around the country in the days leading up to the Federal Election to shore up support for her Liberal Party colleagues.

Apart from the obvious bias, Ms Carnell’s report simply lacks credibility. It admits “only a relatively small number of truck drivers participated in the inquiry,” while just 34 written submission were received. One of those submissions was from Steven Melichar who gave an exact costing of how the Order benefited him. In the submission he adds: “I felt more relaxed and refreshed than I ever had knowing that I would not have to push myself to complete the load as quickly as possible”. Despite the few written submissions it received, Steven’s views never made it into the report.

The report also admits its findings on the “crippling” effect of the Order are not based on actual findings. “It may be difficult to gather factual evidence to show the extent that financial difficulties are attributable to the Payments Order,” it states.

The report chooses to ignore decades of scientific research which links the pay rates of drivers to road safety. It even ignores a Federal Government review released in April which showed the payments Order would lead to a 28 per cent reduction in the number of heavy vehicle crashes*.

This report set out to provide a seal of approval for Malcolm Turnbull’s work in tearing down a tribunal which was tackling the struggle owner drivers face in Australia. But the seal it provides is weak since it lacks any scientific basis and is politically slanted. If it hadn’t involved the use of taxpayers’ money, it might be amusing.

Here is the reality of life for truck drivers. There is a crisis in trucking and it is marked by suicides, bankruptcies, low pay, high workplace deaths and injuries and the employment of untrained and exploited migrant workers. But these problems did not emerge because of a two-week Order on minimum rates. They have plagued our industry for decades and the remuneration tribunal was tackling them, root and branch. Most importantly it was doing this by not going after the transport companies in the middle. It was holding the retailers, manufacturers, ports and banks at the top to account for their low cost transport contracts which are the source of the low pay, stress, fatigue and pressure experienced by drivers at the bottom. This did not suit the agenda of Malcolm Turnbull or his friends in the media. But it would have made the lives of Australia’s trucking community a whole lot better.

For those who enjoy statements based in fact, see below.

Evidence of pressure

A Safe Work Australia report in July 2015 showed

  • 31 per cent of transport employers say workers ignore safety rules to get the job done
  • 20 per cent of transport employers accept dangerous behaviour, compared to less than 2 per cent in other industries.
  • 20 per cent of transport industry employers break safety rules to meet deadlines — this compares with just 6 per cent of employers in other industries.

Bankruptcies

According to the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, transport operators have one of the highest rates of insolvencies of any industry and small firms of five full time employees or less are the most likely to go bankrupt. In the financial year to June 2015 there were 275 insolvencies among these small operators. In the financial year before that there were 548 insolvencies. The main reason for the insolvencies was inadequate cash flow.

Suicide

A study by Deakin University showed 323 truck drivers committed suicide between 2001 and 2010. (Suicide among male road and rail drivers in Australia: a retrospective mortality study). An analysis by the Victorian coroner’s court showing truck drivers had the highest number of suicides out of any other profession, with 53 drivers taking their own lives between 2008 to 2014.

* PricewaterhouseCoopers “Review of the Road Safety Remuneration System Final Report January 2016” (PWC Review 2016 — published by the Commonwealth Department of Employment on 1 April, 2016)”

Robert Gottliebsen: There no disagreement that it is unsafe for truck drivers to drive for too long.

Maybe a decade or two ago the only way to reduce the hours was to increase the price. Fortunately, today modern technology enables drivers to be monitored. There is absolutely no need use prices.

Owner drivers love their trucks and they will not drive longer hours than allowed if they know they are being monitored.

But to show the real motivation of the tribunal, let’s assume that increasing the price actually was a workable alternative to technology, then surely it is necessary to make sure every driver charges the same price or is levied the same tax. If you make one set of drivers (the owner drivers) charge an exorbitant fee and empower another set (employed TWU member drivers) to cut the exorbitant compulsory charge to ribbons, you decimate owner drivers.

And that was the tribunal’s aim and that is what happened until Malcolm Turnbull stepped in.

Those owner drivers who lost all before action was taken were devastated. I hope they have the courage to take court action.