Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal ruling on truckies’ pay cost lives

The Australian, September 15, 2016:

The Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal caused “crippling’’ ­financial hardship and emotional distress, leading some owner drivers to take their own lives, ­according to a scathing report that recommends the competition watchdog oversee a new ­national code of conduct for the road freight industry.

The damning report by Small Business Ombudsman Kate Carnell found the tribunal’s “discriminatory’’ orders earlier this year to lift the pay rates of thousands of truck drivers made long-distance and supermarket chain drivers uncompetitive, exacerbated existing competitive pressures, and placed families under considerable stress.

“It is with great regret and sympathy that it was reported to the inquiry that some owner-drivers found they were unable to cope with further hardship caused by the (tribunal’s) payments order and took their own lives,’’ the report, obtained by The Australian, found.

The report calls for national advertisements to educate road users about how to drive near trucks and a new apprenticeship scheme to get younger people into trucking.

To address concerns big transport companies had “excessive power’’, it recommends that the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission — which currently enforces five industry codes — work with the Department of Treasury to develop a code of conduct for the road freight industry.

It called for a further inquiry to address an imbalance in the ­industry’s payment structure, with owner-drivers subject to strict payment requirements, while waiting months to get paid. It also found fatigue management laws were inflexible and could result in “perverse situations, such as permitting a person to drive when they are fatigued’’.

The Senate voted in April to scrap the tribunal, after the Turnbull government won the backing of key crossbenchers to kill off the controversial body, set up by Labor after lobbying by the Transport Workers Union.

Just hours before the April vote, the tribunal backflipped, agreeing to consider delaying the introduction of minimum payments for thousands of truck drivers until next year.

While the payments order by the tribunal only operated for two weeks, the inquiry found it had a “wide ranging and significant ­impact on a large part of the road transport industry’’.

“This inquiry has found the payment order’s impact to be ­financially and personally crippling for many small transport business owners and their families,’’ the report says.

“Businesses suffered from a reduction or cessation of available work, and the financial ­impact of this was borne out on households in terms of personal debt, stress, poor mental health and uncertainty about the future. For some of those affected, these impacts continue.’’

Employment Minister Michaelia Cash, who will release the ­report today, said last night the government would “carefully consider’’ its recommendations and respond in due course. “Reading this report, it is hard to escape one of two conclusions about the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal,’’ she told The Australian. “Either it was one of the most bumbling bureaucracies in living memory, or it had a clear agenda to squeeze out non-unionised small businesses, so the Transport Workers Union could gain control of the industry.’’

Ms Carnell, a former Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive, said last night the evidence heard by the inquiry was “heartbreaking’’.

“Fundamentally what we found was the order caused significant financial and emotional distress for small business owner-drivers; many lost work, resulting in a loss of income that impacted not only on their business, but their entire family,” she said.

“The inquiry also heard evidence that a small number of people found the order compounded their mental health battles and financial difficulties to the extent that they took their own lives, so it’s our strong recommendation that mental health implications be considered when regulation like this is developed in the future.’’

The inquiry found that given the tribunal’s order only set minimum rates of pay for owner-drivers, it had a discriminatory impact on mum-and-dad operators.

“These pay rates did not apply to big-business logistics companies with employed drivers; only mum-and-dad owner-operators were impacted by the order,’’ Ms Carnell said. “This, of course, created an unfair system whereby small business drivers weren’t able to compete on a level playing field.

“To suggest that road safety will improve by implementing a payments system that only affects owner-operators, not the big companies, is extremely misguided; road safety is an issue for all drivers. We found no evidence that owner-operators are less safe than employed drivers.”

The inquiry found the tribunal was overly legalistic and adversarial in its approach. “For many owner-drivers, this was their first experience with this kind of process; they were unaware of proper procedures, and as a result were unprepared for what followed,” she said.

However, the report did not support compensation for small businesses impacted by the tribunal’s order.