Subbie Truckies, Safety, Cash and Turnbull’s Government.

 

Haul Road Capers 045I’ve seen some hijacks in my time, but nothing quite beats the Federal Government’s manipulation of the minimum pay rates for truckies legislation, it’s been brilliantly painted as a TWU grab for membership and cash, but for those of us who actually work in the industry, rather than somebody such as the current Employment Minister Senator Michaelia Cash, who, so the story goes, was last elected on less votes than Ricky Muir, the reality is starkly different.

I’ve worked in the Australian trucking industry on and off since 1975 and I’m still working in it. Though I’ve never had the courage / been naïve enough (take your pick) to own my own truck, I have worked for sub-contractors several times. A select few grasped the opportunity to sell to bigger competitors and did well, but most, including some friends, have gone broke and lost everything, in the honourable pursuit of being their own boss, mixed with a love of machinery – I think all of us in the industry are afflicted with diesel in the veins.

Let us be utterly frank, subcontractors (Subbies) exist in the trucking industry for no other reason than they provide a service cheaper than what it costs the big companies to provide the service. Why buy a truck and employ a driver if somebody else will provide the truck, driver and fuel far cheaper than you can and you make a profit just sitting in the office?

Even better, it’s a free market out there – dog eat dog, everyone undercuts everybody, no contract is really safe and there are always clauses to drop the rates if conditions dictate. Often the subbie owns the prime mover, but not the trailers, indeed pulling company trailers is one way to save wear and tear on the prime mover – everyone of us has had instructions from owners not to use the prime mover brakes, only the company trailer brakes, in all circumstances.

The sad thing is, 99.99% of all sub-contractor owners buy a rig, or two, or three, with the very best of intentions – to provide a good life for themselves and their families and, if they need drivers, to be a good employer. Without a doubt they are inevitably salt of the earth, dinky di, hard-working good people. Unfortunately they usually aren’t good business people.

So they mortgage the family home for a prime mover often worth more than the house, as there’s the offer of what looks to be an excellent contract. The banks and finance companies don’t care, as long as the house is secured. Things usually go well for a year or two, so well in fact that more often than not, the subbie purchases another prime mover. Unfortunately that’s usually around about the time the initial vehicle needs some major work. It’s perhaps two years old with 700,000 kilometres on the clock.

Now with two trucks, he’s got to employ, or ‘subcontract’ a driver, although it’s got a bit harder in recent times to ‘employ’ a driver as a sub-contractor – “No worries mate, just get a business number and pay your own tax.” These days the taxation department regards these arrangements as Employer / Employee arrangements and there’s superannuation to be paid, it’s a bit tricky, but it still happens on a regular basis, there’s no choice.

There’s often an unspoken expectation that the driver will work in the same way as the owner does – long hours, some of them unpaid and also that the driver will “fix things on the road,” regardless of the fact that mechanical repairs done by a non-qualified technician are illegal – try facing a court after an accident to explain that the repairs were done by a non-qualified, non-trained person.

Now that the owner has placed him or herself in a hideous position of financial pressure, two things have to happen before anybody else gets paid – the driver has to be paid his or her weekly wages – most drivers will hang around through to the second week waiting to be paid, but then they’re gone – and fuel has to go in the rig. The fuel companies don’t muck around, payment for fuel is instant, straight out of the owner’s bank account, very few owner-drivers have the luxury of fuel on credit, although sometimes, if they haul for a large trucking company, they can refill at the company bowsers, but that of course is deducted from monthly invoiced haulage payments. That’s if the payments are made monthly, often big companies hold back on payments and the owner driver is expected to cope, it’s very easy to dispute an invoice and drag payment out for a couple of months.

When this stage is reached, the owner driver, who probably is not actually driving at this point, will put off one driver and start driving himself. All the while, the next bloke with a huge overdraft and desperate for another contract to somehow manage his repayments, knocks on the big contractor’s door and offers to haul at a lower rate – he’ll do anything to create a cash flow, (the “We may have to repossess your house” notice is in the glovebox of the prime mover). So the company gives their contracted subbie an ultimatum – “Mate, times are tough, there are a lot of blokes knocking on our door who’ll cart for 10c a kilometre less than you do.”

He needs that cash flow too, so what does he do? Yep, he meets the opposition rates. And guess what, the company demands an even tighter schedule –  the freight has to be at the delivery point at a time that simply cannot be done safely with proper fatigue management. Next stop, the Speed supplier. Pop those pills and keep going, there simply isn’t any choice. The east west run from Brisbane / Sydney and Melbourne to Perth is notorious, you can tell long term drug-taking east westers by their missing teeth and the madness of their conversation. You often find them on mine sites, their bodies and minds broken and they always have tales of losing everything, including the marriage. They seek refuge in what they hope is a more controlled environment, but sadly they often can’t take the rules and regulations, which in a simple twist of fate, are usually all about safety.

The spiral to ruin is almost inevitable. The initial hope, then the change in fortune, the pressure, always the pressure, the mechanical break downs that can’t (financially) be properly repaired, the wages that can’t be paid, the desperate attempts to keep the rig going, the repair shortcuts, the pills to keep working shockingly dangerous hours and so on. Those of us who drive for big companies always know when a subbie is working with us – he’s the one who can’t stop for a break, will drive faster than anybody else, run the yellow lights and plead for one more load, all the while laughing at employee drivers as not being real men or truckies. I can recall a situation a couple of years back, when subbies were doing a job on Kargotich Rd in Perth’s southern suburbs, where several employee drivers, myself included, asked if we could use another route, as it had become dangerous with desperate subbies, sure enough the accidents happened, it’s on the record.

The other side of the coin and make no mistake, this is all about profit, is that the rest of us, the public and the big companies all win. Everything we buy, from food, through condoms to condominiums are subsidised by truckies. The Federal Liberal government  understands only too well how much costs would increase if truck owners were paid decent money, there would be outrage from all of us – yes, you and me. If the big companies had to buy trucks, or add to their fleets and employ drivers on penalty rate wages, while working to proper fatigue management standards, I estimate costs of everything would rise by at least 25%, immediately.

So of course it’s vital to squash the legislation introduced by a union loving Labor government and the saddest point is that owner drivers are so trapped in the situation, they can’t possibly agree to the legislated changes. They are telling the truth, many of them will lose their trucks, their businesses, their houses and their marriages, no question of it.

So the very thing that would give the owner driver operator division of the industry a secure, viable future and make our roads safer, will in fact ruin them. Except that a fair number of them would survive in the immediate future – there simply aren’t enough trucks to replace the owner drivers, big companies would have to use them. The poorly run and the terminally insolvent would go – they always do anyhow – but well run operations would survive.

However, it’s not going to happen, most independent senators are buckling to government pressure. Interestingly, Senator Ricky Muir stands out as opposing dropping the changes, good on him, he must know a bit about the industry. I haven’t been able to ascertain where the Greens stand on this.

I note that Senator Cash has a wealth of experience in industrial law, I wonder whose side she usually  fought for – big business, or the little guy – the owner driver, or the employee?

Senator Cash and her government, along with several independent senators, seemingly desperate to keep their seats, want the status quo to continue, that is: the appalling truck accidents, the appalling bankruptcies and the appalling destruction of good people. When Senator Cash stands and declares she’s supporting mums, dads and family trucking businesses,  my lip curls. Gillard and the Labor Government had the courage to finally try and fix a broken, terribly dangerous industry. Senator Cash and Prime Minister Turnbull are having none of that.

And then there’s this from good old Uncle Sam:

How politicians have conspired to make trucking deadlier and drivers more exhausted via

Sound familiar? The following article by Louise Thornthwaite in The Conversation (15 April 2016), is insightful and to my mind correct.

https://theconversation.com/controversial-history-of-road-safety-tribunal-shows-minimum-pay-was-doomed-from-the-start-57815

This pertinent comment in the Sydney Morning Herald by Tony Sheldon from the TWU:

http://www.smh.com.au/comment/truckies-need-a-fair-go-or-more-lives-will-be-lost-20160417-go89qr.html

Expert rebuts report that questioned link between truck driver pay and safety http://gu.com/p/4tdf6/stw

https://theconversation.com/factcheck-do-better-pay-rates-for-truck-drivers-improve-safety-57639

Greg Ross

 

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