Setting enforceable standards in transport

Sixty-two people have been killed on Australian roads this year [as of April 4]. Nineteen of them were truck drivers. It is devastating that families keep having to bury their loved ones because this industry is so dangerous, and so in crisis.

What’s also distressing is that since 2017, 11 food delivery workers have been killed. Only recently, a rideshare driver was murdered while on the job. It’s an industry of rampant exploitation, marked by pressure to rush to make enough money, and to avoid being “deactivated” – kicked off an app and out of a job with no right of reply.

The thing is, the gig economy and traditional freight have already begun intersecting in ways that spells catastrophe for transport if it’s left unchecked – for workers, for transport operators and for the wider public. 

We’ve seen it already – we’ve seen AmazonFlex enter the parcel industry, and FedEx introduce piece rates for owner drivers. 

That’s why recently we took a delegation of transport workers – including gig workers – to call on federal parliament to enact urgent reform in our industry. It’s urgent because there have already been too many deaths. It’s urgent because of the collapse of companies like Scott’s, and Rivet Mining Services in WA, and Neway, and the other 200 transport companies that have become insolvent in the last financial year.

It’s urgent because without reform, we’ll see supply chain crisis, more deaths, and more companies going under. 

Safety, fairness and sustainability in transport relies heavily on minimum standards in the industry – including, and perhaps especially, in the gig economy. A recent report by the McKell Institute, TWU and TEACHO of over 1000 gig workers puts this into stark clarity. 

The survey showed a shocking 66 per cent of full-time gig workers earn under minimum wage. Fifty-six per cent feel pressured to rush or take risks to earn enough money, or to avoid getting kicked off the app. 

It also found that the more hours they work, the less their hourly pay ends up being. That’s not flexibility, and it won’t be unless there are minimum standards. That’s why 95 per cent of the survey respondents support regulation in the gig economy.

Without a minimum floor, the gig economy is a race to the bottom. That means unfair competition for the companies who are doing the right thing and committing to decent pay and conditions – like Woolworths and Coles which have signed charters with the TWU on safer standards in their supply chains. 

Those companies won’t be able to continue to do the right thing if the likes of Amazon continue to pull the rug out from under them. That commercial pressure from wealthy clients and retailers is exactly what we saw at Scott’s, and it’s why 1500 workers lost their jobs.

Scott’s was the largest refrigerated logistics operator in Australia. It shows the depth of the crisis in trucking that it couldn’t turn a profit because of those commercial pressures.

If things keep going the way of the gig economy, we’ll also see standards continue to drop for workers. When we took a delegation of transport workers and gig workers to Canberra to call for urgent reform, it was shocking to hear the stories. 

If you’re a gig worker and you don’t accept an order because it’s too low, someone else will be there to take it. We can’t keep going down that road – it will be every worker against each other, and an obliteration of the standards we’ve built up over decades.

The federal government committed last year to empowering the Fair Work Commission to set enforceable standards in transport. What we need now is for federal parliament to urgently back in those reforms. They can’t wait.

  • Richard Olsen is TWU NSW/QLD state secretary

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