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Why all the fuss about minimum rates for truck drivers?

March 24, 2016

In less than two weeks (4 April 2016), the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal (RSRT) intends to implement a minimum rate for contractor drivers through the Contractor Driver Minimum Payments Road Safety Remuneration Order.

It should come as no surprise to the heavy vehicle transport industry and those in the supply chain, including companies with Chain of Responsibility (CoR) obligations.

In a statement released earlier today (Thursday 24 March) the Australian Logistics Council (ALC) says it raised concerns back in 2012 when the legislation was first considered and passed by Parliament in March that year.

Why then has there been a late rush from almost every transport-related association and even the Federal Minister for Employment, Michaelia Cash, appealing for or even demanding a delay of the Order’s start date, which appears to have fallen on deaf ears (although hearings over Easter may succeed in getting the RSRT to re-think the Order’s start date).

Affected associations are citing both a lack of consultation and preparation time for companies in the supply chain to revise or create new contracts with drivers, let alone the impact it will have on their respective members’ businesses.

Does it spell the end of the small owner-operator?

Many groups are touting that if the changes to minimum rates proceed, it will price smaller operators out of the industry.

The Transport Workers Union (TWU) is perhaps the only vocal supporter of the Order. It says an increase in minimum rates will make the industry safer, and that’s worth paying for.

It certainly had its message heard in the print media during the week.

In one article in the Gold Coast Bulletin on 22 March, titled: Police crackdown on truckies modifying vehicles to exceed speed restrictions to beat budgets and deadlines, the paper suggested truckies were ‘hacking’ their speed limiters to enable them to exceed the legal maximum speed limit so they could return to base faster and not have to stop overnight.

The Queensland TWU’s secretary, Peter Biagini, while not endorsing the practice, was quoted in the article as saying that “drivers were under immense pressure to get the job done quicker … drivers have to drive harder, longer, and unsafely, just to make a dollar.”

The article mentioned that one driver on Gold Coast roads had been intercepted by police doing 129kmh.

Biagini said: “Being able to do speeds of 129km/h means being able to cut an hour or two off trips and many are desperate enough to take that risk.”

The previous day (21 March) Sydney’s Daily Telegraph ran an article blaming ‘cowboys’ for causing a recent spate of tunnel accidents and disruptions caused by drivers of heavy vehicles.

“Having a crack”

In the article titled: Ride them Cowboys! When Sydney truckers go wrong, NSW’s Roads Minister Duncan Gay took aim at ‘cowboy’ drivers who thumbed their noses at a “raft of changes including alerts, warning lights, infra-red height detectors and layby areas for trucks to pull over before entering tunnels.”

He blamed them for ignoring the warning signs and “having a crack” anyway.

NSW Secretary for the TWU Michael Aird blamed the tunnel accidents on second or third tier companies that contracted out the work to unskilled drivers for economic reasons.

“If you play by the rules, you get priced out of the market.” He said the so-called cowboys were undercutting rates just to get jobs.

“When rates paid to truck drivers are squeezed it’s a recipe for disaster,” said Mr Aird in the article. “Clients know that the rates they are offering to truck drivers are so low that many drivers will be forced to skimp on maintenance, overload, drive while fatigued and in the case of the tip truck industry hot tip,” he said.

But the ALC argues that while heavy vehicles are over-represented in crashes, “Studies have found that in fatal crashes involving other vehicles, the other driver was at fault in 84% of the accidents,“ says Kilgariff, referring to the 2015 Major Accident Investigation Report, National Truck Accident Research Centre.

Kilgariff says the ALC supports delaying the introduction of minimum payments order but reiterates that the group believes that “in the longer term the abolition of the RSRT is the only way to avoid the duplication, confusion and costs that this Order, and others like it, will inevitably create.”

“Improving safety in the heavy vehicle industry,” Kilgariff says, “must be based on achieving greater compliance and awareness of Chain of Responsibility laws, rather than being distracted by emotive campaigns to support the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal.”

Common desire

While groups may oppose each other on the introduction of the Order and its timing, one thing they have in common is a desire for a safer industry. But at what cost?

Will any changes in minimum rates spell the end of many small transport businesses, as some transport groups declare?

Will the introduction of the Order help to remove the cowboys from the roads, as the TWU suggests, and would it be worth paying more to achieve that result?

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