Pilots fear trouble ahead unless pay rates increase

They have a heavy burden of responsibility on their shoulders every time an oversize, overmass load is moved around Australia. Many are even made to feel like a quasi-occupational health and safety officer, such are the obligations that invariably land their way. But you wouldn’t know it from the size of their take home pay, according to disgruntled veteran pilot Ray Platt.

“We’re the bottom feeders of the transport industry, and we’re treated like that,” said Platt, who is rallying industry support for a fair day’s pay for heavy vehicle truck pilots in the face of ever-increasing operating costs.

“They think of us at the last minute, and only put us on because they have to.”

To illustrate his point, he says that if he gets a mechanic out to service the trucks that he runs himself from his Peak Hill, NSW, depot, he’ll be billed $180 per hour, and $2 per km in each direction.

Yet, when Platt fires up the trusty Hilux to safely guide some of the most expensive equipment transportable on our highways, he’d be lucky to get $2 per kilometre just to go one way.

Forget an hourly rate, or indeed any other associated expenses being met by the client, it all comes out of Platt’s meagre one-way rate, over as much as 400,000km each year.

Platt says at the very least pilots should be paid $2.50 per kilometre, both ways.

If something doesn’t change soon, he fears for the future of the sector.

“It’s downright dangerous out there now; we are technically safety officers on those loads.”

Standards are eroded by a myriad of different laws for pilots from state-to-state, and without an award to adhere to, Platt says undercutting is rife, exacerbated by a wave of inexperienced students and pensioners entering the sector in recent times.

“There are too many people who will come in under you, but fuel prices might sort this out,” he said.

APVDA president Jim Prentice.

Jim Prentice, president of the Australian Pilot Vehicle Drivers Association (APVDA), said the industry tried for harmonisation and unity a few years back.

“The federal government came up with a quarter million dollars, and they seconded a couple of people, one from Western Australia, one from the Australian Capital Territory and they went around and got everybody on side, all the state transport ministers signed off, took it back to the federal government. 

“In their wisdom, they handed it to the NHVR who said it’s not a priority, we haven’t got the money and through the whole lot in the bin.

“In saying that, a good percentage of the pilots who operate, don’t treat it as their own personal business, and they tend to take the easy path and they work through agents.

“It all stems back to the people not really advertising their ability to do the business, or thinking that they’re going to make a lot of money coming to be a pilot when they have no transport background.”

Prentice estimates there are about 10,000 pilots operating today across Australia with the predominate number in NSW where the entry rules are relatively lax.

“New South Wales, like South Australia, has no formal training, and has no level of accreditation.

“I can have a 75-year-old person who has never had any to do with transport his life and decide that he’s going to add to his pension. He puts a sign on top of his roof, two lights, a radio, and he’s right to go in NSW and South Australia.”

Prentice says he regularly fields calls and requests for the association to do more about improving pay rates.

But that would contravene non-for-profit organisation rules and risk a censure from the ACCC, he said.

“What I tend to say to people is that you go and target transport companies and try and get your rates to a sustainable level,” said Prentice.

“We have a spreadsheet that we offer to new members, or up and coming people that don’t understand quite how much it costs to run a vehicle, and that gives them some idea as to what it costs and then they can work at whether the rates that they’re being offered is viable or non-viable.

Prentice said the Transport Workers Union (TWU) has approached the association with the promise of help.

“But it never eventuates because they can’t see the numbers, or can’t get enough numbers to join the union to make it worth their while lobbying for us.”

Prentice concedes there is a lot of contention as to how existing rates for pilots are derived.

“There’s a lot of pressure being put on pilots by major transport companies to dictate to you what they’re going to pay you,” he said.

“I try and encourage my members, and the people who are attached to our Facebook page to make themselves aware that they are a small business on their own, and they need to have a schedule of rates.

“Don’t just accept the phone call, and somebody says, ‘I’ve got a job to go from there. You’re right to go?’ And then they get on the job and they find out they’re only getting paid so much and then they whinge.”

“I say do your due diligence first, and ask how much and how long it’s going to be before you get paid because that’s a lot of the gripes and a lot a lot of times, agents don’t pay for 60 to 90 days.

“The cash flow then becomes a real issue and people are waiting, going hand to mouth all the time.”

Prentice says some pilots are charging a fuel levy to offset rising diesel costs, but a lot of agents won’t wear it because they’re frightened of losing the clientele.

“The transport company understands that it costs you money for fuel. You need to go and talk to the people. You can’t just sit there and expect somebody to ring you up and give you the best rates if you haven’t negotiated.”

Prentice said the majority of agents who are “doing the right thing” and paying around $1.60 per kilometre, but concedes that figure should be more like $1.88-$1.90 in the current climate.

“I don’t think there is a magic answer, simply because the transport industry over the past decade or so has become disjointed.” 

WA pilot Michael Dean, 69, is convinced that joining the TWU is the key for his colleagues to get a fairer deal, but it’s been an uphill battle so far.

He tried to rally support a couple of years ago, but many of those who were initially interested had a change of heart, fearing they would be blacklisted.

“I do have some sympathy for the agents because they are controlled by the big companies and they can’t do anything to get offside with them in any way,” said Dean, a retired police officer, and former president of the WA police union.

David Bilsborough says pilots are at the bottom of the food chain. Photo: RideRite Pilot Services

  Dean said a lack of members is holding the union back from doing more for pilots, such as an enterprise bargaining agreement.

“I think joining the union is the only way things will change, by the union advocating for pilots.

Without some change soon, Dean fears for the industry’s future in WA where they’re already having trouble getting enough pilots.

“I think it will damage the industry unless it’s properly organised and properly run, and by the industry I mean the mining and trucking industry.”

A joint statement from the TWU branch secretaries Richard Olsen (NSW/ QLD), Mike McNess (Vic/Tas), Ian Smith (SA/NT), and Tim Dawson (WA) said that across Australia, TWU branches have supported heavy haulage escort pilots and continue to do so.

The union said that it understands that heavy haulage escort pilots in today’s industry face a range of issues, not limited to and including:

• Pay rates that are not reflective of the time on the road and the hours they work.

• Exploitation by some of the agencies in the industry.

• Varying regulations across different borders.

• A need for industry standards that ensure job security and a fairer day at work.

David Bilsborough, boss at Brisbane-based RideRite Pilot Services, agreed that something needs to change.

Bilsborough runs four of his cars with his staff drivers but also uses sub-contractors all around Australia.

“We should be getting more than what we’re getting. We are the bottom of the food chain.”

“I know a lot of the bigger companies are charging out pilots at $2.40-$2.50 a kilometre and the pilots are struggling to get paid $1.70-$1.80 a kilometre.

Bilsborough believes many transport companies are using the difference to offset their own costs.

He said you only have to compare what police get paid for their escort work, when more often than not, they’re doing a lot less than what the pilots are asked to do on the same job.

“Some police cars are along for the ride and police are getting $1.20 per kilometre, plus $130 per hour, and that’s from base-to-base,” he said.

Bilsborough said there needs to be a similar system in place for pilots to compensate for down time.

“If we all stick together at the same price transport companies will have no option. They need us as much as we need them,” he said.

“But unfortunately, I’m still hearing of sole operator pilots, and some of the [booking] agents, their pilots aren’t the best in the industry, and they’re just doing cheap rates to keep the wheels turning, and it’s the same with transport companies.

“Some will only have the pilot there to make the job legal. They don’t care what the pilot’s like as long as he’s got his lights on and his sign up, and those transport companies are the ones who will want to pay the pilot $1.40 a kilometre and probably charge the pilots out at $2.40 a kilometre.”

At 62, Platt isn’t sure how much longer he can put up with the struggle for recognition.

“I know blokes out there who can’t afford to feed themselves, yet they are still going to work on $1.50 per kilometre and can’t afford to put fuel in,” said Platt, a former vice-chair of the national pilots’ association.

“At $1.70 per kilometre, you’re barely covering costs let alone superannuation and making a living wage.

“I’ll be honest with you, if my wife wasn’t working, we’d be starving. 

“We have to be getting $2.50 a kilometre to make us viable. I just tell people now, ‘You pay the rate, or I just don’t go’.”

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