In April the Liberals abolished the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal (RSRT), in another gift to big business.

It was opposed particularly by the big transport companies, as well as major retailers like Coles, for efforts to boost truck drivers’ pay.

According to Transport Workers Union (TWU) NSW Secretary Michael Aird Coles’ efforts to undermine the RSRT have extended to multi-million dollar lobbying operations in Canberra, with $2.1 million donated to the Liberal Party in recent years and an extensive backroom lobbying presence.

The RSRT was introduced under the Gillard Labor government after a campaign by the TWU, supported by families of people killed in truck crashes and many drivers.

“My brother’s death has devastated our family and we know he should never have died. He was killed by an inexperienced driver who’d had a ‘grueling work schedule’ and was driving a truck with faulty brakes, according to the coroner,” said Sue Posnakidis, whose brother John was killed in a truck crash in South Australia in 2010.

Evidence on safety

The RSRT was established to address both road safety and truck drivers’ working conditions. There is overwhelming academic evidence of the link between truck-related deaths in road accidents and low pay.

In 2008, a National Transport Commission enquiry concluded that low rates of pay, incentive-based payment methods and unpaid working time, “create an incentive for truck drivers to drive fast, work long hours and use illicit substances to stay awake.”

They also pointed to the hyper-competitive nature of the industry and low bargaining power of the drivers.

In December last year the RSRT decided to introduce minimum pay rates for owner drivers, commensurate with wages earned by employee drivers.

In a heavily competitive industry where owner drivers compete with each other as well as large trucking companies for contracts, owner drivers need protection from price-cutting. Too often truckies are forced to cut corners on health and safety, maintenance and therefore the safety of other road users to deliver the best contract rates. It’s a race to the bottom.

“Low-cost contracts from wealthy retailers and manufacturers mean trucks are not maintained properly and drivers are under pressure to meet unrealistic deadlines, to speed, drive for longer than is allowed, to overload their trucks and skip rest periods,” said Transport Workers’ Union (TWU) national secretary Tony Sheldon.

The union says the RSRT ruling would have ensured drivers were paid for loading and unloading times, as well as when they cleaned, inspected, serviced and repaired their trucks and trailers.

The union argues: “Despite the Federal Government’s opposition to safe minimum rates for truck drivers, its own reports released recently show that road transport has the ‘highest fatality rates of any industry in Australia’ with 12 times the average for all industries. The reports also show the link between road safety and the pay rates of drivers and that the safe rates system would reduce truck crashes by 28 per cent.”

However, owner drivers are divided. While some support the new rate, others are very hostile, saying that the union is blaming drivers for poor safety on the roads. Many think that higher pay rates might mean they lost contracts and therefore their livelihood altogether.

Dr Jason Thompson, a researcher with Monash University’s Accident Research Centre, argues owner drivers are, “scared of a regulation that would at the end of the day benefit them.”

The fear of pricing themselves out of a job has been fuelled by right-wing politicians like Bob Katter and Glenn Lazarus who demanded the government abolish the RSRT before the election.

Yet, as Victorian Greens Senator Janet Rice argued, most contracts will be maintained because the ruling means no one will be able to legally undercut prices.

Industrial action

It is clear that truckies will not achieve pay justice, secure contracts and safe working conditions simply by protest and appeals to parliament. There also needs to be an effort to mobilise the power that can hurt the profits of the big retailers and force them to increase pay.

Successful recent strikes won improvements in the cartage rate for quarrying and excavation industry drivers.

Long distance freight drivers recently blockaded oil company depots and the Melbourne docks demanding an increase in the cartage rate to compensate for increased fuel costs. It is strikes and industrial action that are workers’ strongest weapon.

By Judy McVey

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