Although relieved to hear that the flood-damaged rail line into WA was due to reopen as early as February 15, the head of the state’s peak road freight body warns the supply chain woes are far from over.
Western Roads Federation CEO Cam Dumesny said it’s going to take at least 4-6 weeks to rebuild stocks and shelves in warehouses, by which time the state could be facing similar labour shortages that the east battled due to the Omicron surge late last year.
“At the moment it’s a national fleet task and it’s stretching the transport industry, that’s for sure,” said Dumesny.
“Trucks at this point in time are totally sustaining the state, and the problem for us is that Perth is effectively a DC for a third of the continent, and once it gets to Perth we’ve still got to try and push it up 3000km to Kununurra and out to remoter communities.
“It’s a labour-intensive job and we can’t afford to lose labour.”
Dumesny said the recent pressures on the supply chain in the west has only reinforced the need for a national rethink on how freight is moved around Australia.
He said the fact there is only one sealed road across the bottom of Australia and one at the top highlights the need for urgent action.
“The sealed one across the top was washed out during wet season and was cut for about a week and we were lucky that rain event didn’t close the Eyre Highway as well as the rail.
“We’ve still got nine single lane bridges through the Kimberley on a national highway that routinely gets flooded
“And we only have one road up the middle to cover 60 per cent of the continent. It’s a joke.
“There’s a whole series of things and we need a national approach to what we do.”
Australian Trucking Association chair David Smith believes one answer is to allow the National Land Transport Network to be truly national and include all major truck routes.
“The Australian Government must also take responsibility for granting access approvals for heavy vehicles on national highways, rather than depending on the states to decide which trucks can run on freight routes,” said Smith.
“We’re calling for the Australian government to take responsibility for funding and operating all major freight roads through the national highways program.
“The current state-based system is dysfunctional and fragmented. It’s falling apart and failing Australians and has been since federation.”
On a state level, Dumesny and the WRF were a vocal force in green-lighting temporary road train access to the state, but more needs to be done to make the long haul across the paddock more attractive to a wider range of truckies.
He said the WRF is pushing to get the WA state government to pay for a dedicated, facility-packed rest area in Perth.
“So, they can get out of their trucks and put their feet up. It’s only a minor thing, but it’s paying respect to what they’re doing.
“We’ve got to make it more attractive for drivers to do this east-west run. It’s not one of the highest paid legs, certainly from a WA perspective.”
Dumesny also said it’s vital that WA start to relax the health orders when it comes to truckies crossing state lines, to and from the east.
“WA-based drivers who go east have pretty much been living in self-isolation for the last six months.
“What we’re saying is that if you’re triple-vaxxed, give them some freedoms and pay some respect to them because we’re losing drivers on that route.
“We also need a public campaign to say thanks to the drivers for what they’ve done. We just do not give enough credit to drivers, not just in WA, across the country, for what they’ve actually achieved in the last two years.
“It’s just tokenism [at the moment] and it needs to be better than that.”
Earlier this month, the Retail Supply Chain Alliance of transport, retail and agriculture unions joined forces in Canberra to call on MPs to endorse a bipartisan plan to fix crippled supply chains.
It follows weeks of chaos from Covid and major floods “smashing worker pay and safety, and depriving Australians of vital goods”, said a joint media statement from alliance members, the Transport Workers Union (TWU), the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA), and the Australian Workers’ Union (AWU).
The alliance’s supply chain safety principles include:
• Job security commitment to regulate the gig economy and guard against the ‘Amazon Effect’
• Free rapid tests for all supply chain workers; and
• Mandatory consultation on policy changes with a standing supply chain committee involving unions, workers and industry groups like ARTIO.
The statement said the pandemic and recent flooding have exacerbated an insecure work crisis.
A TWU survey last month showed workers without leave entitlements are experiencing stress and hardship, pressuring them to work while symptomatic or potentially infectious.
Many truck drivers stood-down due to floods are casuals or owner-operators already on wafer thin margins and with ongoing bills, the alliance added.
“This year has begun with absolute bedlam across our essential supply chain network,” said TWU national secretary Michael Kaine.
“In the east, workers are at home recovering from the federal government’s insistence to ‘let it rip’, while in the west, north and south, workers are at home without pay because of major flooding.
“This is happening because the Morrison government has habitually ignored warnings from workers and industry. Critical supply chain workers need secure jobs, free RATs, and a seat at the table to make sure hair-brained decisions by politicians won’t make their challenging jobs even more difficult.”
Dumesny added his voice to the call for free RATs for the industry, and also reiterated the need for a national approach to solving staff shortages across the board in road transport.
A customised WA recruitment program is seeing encouraging results – more than 87 per cent success with more than 200 placements – but Dumesny said more has to be done.
Late last month, the national cabinet endorsed two major changes it said are designed to alleviate the truckie shortage in Australia:
• As an immediate priority, all states and territories will enact arrangements to allow New Zealand citizens to use their equivalent New Zealand heavy vehicle licence in Australia for 12 months (or until the licence expires if sooner), before being required to obtain an Australian licence; ii) the states and territories will extend equivalent arrangements to interstate (Australian) drivers to ensure Australian drivers are not disadvantaged. These measures will be a temporary Covid-19 response measure to be reviewed 12 months after implementation.
• Austroads is to provide an interim National Heavy Vehicle Driver Competency Framework report by February 2022 to help jurisdictions introduce a competency-based licensing framework for heavy vehicle license class progression, with the final framework due in mid-2022 following consultation on framework development and implementation arrangements.
Commenting on news of the competency framework report, Queensland Trucking Association CEO Gary Mahon said, like WA, he already has an industry-endorsed job ready program for truckies ready to roll out now that’s designed to help plug the shortfall.
All that’s needed is government funding.
“The driver shortages are now and it’s a significant disappointment that this critical need has been sent off for further bureaucratic treatment,” said Mahon.
Dumesny said the national cabinet’s announcement may sound good on paper, but in reality New Zealand has a driver shortage of its own, as do countries like the US, Canada and the UK.
“We can belly-ache as much as we like as a state but nationally, we need truck drivers, mechanics, schedulers, and everyone else.
“There’s a national shortage of these people and we’re going to have to start training them up and working out how we’re going to do it.”
Ultimately, Dumesny said he’d like to see every international driver, regardless of where they come from, do some form of verification of licencing.
“Just because they’ve got a licence it does not make me a truck driver,” he said. “So, when they come here they should go through a course to learn the rules of the road for Australia, and load restraint rules, and routes, and then have someone do a verification of competency that they can drive.
“If we could do that, that would take out some of the animosity that’s on the road at the moment.”