Pressures on truckies inquiry: ‘Trucking is the wild west of wage theft’

pressure on truckies
The hearing process for the NSW inquiry in to the pressures on truckies and their impact in the state is wrapped up with the parliamentary committee expected to table its report in February 2024.
The committee received 24 submissions from industry, including one from long-time truckie Brian Turpie, a former president of the Long Haul Drivers Association (LHDA) and Wall of Fame inductee, who retired from the road recently after 50 years behind the wheel.
Below are edited extracts from his submission. 

Over-riding root cause

The problems in the road transport industry can be traced back to the one, over-riding root cause, money.

The industry has always been hamstrung by the ease that entrants to the industry can set up shop unchecked and without any official oversight or constraint.

The fact that you can gain finance and operate a transport company or truck with virtually no training or qualifications has always led to unregulated mayhem that without fail has always transferred to our nations highways.

How is that possible you might ask? Well the trouble begins with operators who run poorly resourced and under funded operations and use the drivers wages as the first bargaining chip to reduce costs.

We have seen a multitude of of national business enterprises exposed for what we call wage theft but the transport industry has historically been the wild west of wage theft with transport operators having written the book on how to exploit workers for financial gain.

Compliance with industrial awards and OH&S rules have never been treated with the urgency required to stamp out the illegal operating practices of the peripheral operators who have escaped scrutiny for far too long.

For over 50 years transport drivers have been at the mercy of small transport operators who make up the vast majority of the transport fleet.

Drivers have never had any strength at the negotiating table because they have always been fragmented and independent to their own cause allowing unscrupulous operators free reign to subvert the regulatory constraints that are supposed to protect us without fear of consequences.

The rogue operators in the road transport industry have been allowed to operate outside the industrial relations regime for far too long without the checks and balances that are required and that has led us to where we are today.

Where is that you may ask? Well, have a look at the evening news for starters, where tragedy on our highways unfolds at an alarming pace. Ten years ago I wrote an analysis of the road safety implications of this lawlessness for the NTC.

In that analysis I pointed out that the critical point to understand was the carnage that was unfolding on our highways because the relentless push from these rogue operators would only deteriorate over the coming decades and sadly that prophesy has been coming to fruition year on year.

The same problems that were with us when I wrote that analysis are still with us now and sadly they will still be with us in the next decade without a major shift in the safety focus in the heavy transport sector.

Truckies under relentless pressure

Freight forwarders, customers and truck owners all exert overbearing influence on the driver to meet demanding schedules and time frames all the while refusing to accept any responsibility when things go wrong.

The age old chestnut, “I had no idea of what the driver was doing” has finally been put to the sword with technological advances now showing real time assessment of where the trucks are, what they are doing and the ability for a transport operator to be in constant touch with drivers and their vehicles in an instant in real time means that sorry old excuse no longer applies.

It is a well known fact in the transport industry that drivers are being encouraged, pressured and bullied into doing whatever it takes to get the job done legally, illegally or anywhere in between.

I have witnessed the aftermath of this subversive tactic so many times with the driver either losing his life or his family when it turns to mud.

I have always counselled drivers to be aware that, at the end of the day it will be them standing before the Magistrate trying to explain why they are there and why they did what they did.

Employers have enjoyed the benefit of a one way street with the option of a reasonable steps defence available to them far too long, a defence not available to a driver .

The truck owner sets the timetable for the driver, he sets the load schedule, he also sets the remuneration so a driver has only two options, do the job or find another job.

I can personally vouch for this, as throughout my career I have worked for over a dozen transport employers and because I refused to be intimidated into breaking the law I was forever looking for a new job.

Drivers have historically been exposed to the wrath of an employer due to the often lax scrutiny that has been applied to compliance with industrial awards dealing with the transport sector. You were either prepared to break the law or find another job, it was always that simple equation.

They say that the only thing that changes in the road transport industry is the date.

Subverting CoR by stealth

The new century has been a never-ending blur of rules and regulations that have been almost as useless as the paper that they are written on because well-known overnight express companies have completely subverted the the intent of Chain of Responsibility legislation by stealth.

How do they do this? Well, if a driver doesn’t comply with this deadline system they call their contractor and tell them not to send that driver to them again, problem solved by stealth.

Use a sub-contract carrier on this run and in turn that contractor places a driver in the truck for 1.5 hours during the journey so that it appears to be running non-stop legally, but in reality, the main driver is still sitting in the passenger’s seat during the time the second driver is in the vehicle.

Is that really a kosher business practice or just another sham to subvert the COR and fatigue regulations? This has resulted in sub-contract fleets telling drivers they should not stop at all in transit.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, most express companies now have 24 hour call centres where they call drivers for so called ‘welfare checks’ at 2am, 3am, 4am but the true reason can’t be much plainer; they are calling to make sure the truck hasn’t stopped for any reason.

Care to watch the result of this pressure on the 6 o’clock news any night and see the carnage on our highways overnight? The reason trucks are continually running off the road and crashing? The constant overt and covert pressure to keep driving/working that is applied relentlessly is never-ending for us, and is always at the forefront of the decisions that can change our lives forever.

The real downside of paying drivers on longhaul by the kilometre is the fact that it then promotes driving whilst fatigued because if you stop driving you stop getting paid.

A driver can spend all day in a capital city loading, unloading, queuing and attending to the multitude of jobs that need to be undertaken in a day all while not being paid. Yes, you read that right; Longhaul drivers are only paid for the kilometres they drive, so after a days unpaid work come nightfall he is faced with the pressure of having to drive all night to the next capital city to earn his income.

Is that not the greatest recipe for disaster you’ve have ever heard of? Well that is the reality that we have faced for way too long and it is well past time to finally eliminate pay by the kilometre for all drivers and eliminate the farce that we call overnighting once and for all.

The Fair Work Commission boasts that it put an end to trip money on long distance work but the truth is they just allowed the industry to rename it, Paid by the Kilometre.

Where to from here?

The answer lies in government, regulators and industry looking long and hard at the evidence that has been provided by the experts, seasoned drivers and history.

Clearly that evidence shows overwhelmingly that only focusing on financial expediency over the safety, well being and sustainability of the entire Industry will yield the same tired results we have put up with for 50 years.

It is past time that we start to examine the truth of the current state of the transport industry. The latest decline started with the turn of the century and begins with the push to overhaul fatigue management regulations that commenced in the early 2000s when employers were seeking to extend driver hours to cover the explosion of B-doubles in the freight task.

What we saw happen with B-doubles was a ticking time bomb that has slowly permeated through the entire transport network, that time bomb is work hours, for you don’t need to be a Rhodes Scholar to understand that when we progressed from semi-trailers to multiple-combination trailers the time needed by drivers to load, unload, hook up-unhook is a minimum a 20 per cent increase in work time spent attending to the task.

Previously drivers were spending around 12 hours a shift driving, loading, unloading and attending to the job requirements.

With the uptake of B-doubles the industry and employers still wanted the same turnaround times that semi drivers were delivering, even though B-doubles were not being used on linehaul only, as first envisioned, but were being predominately slotted into the general freight task and expected to run the same overnight routes aa the rest of the fleet.

When they were first touted as only to be used depot to depot and operated by the cream of the driver pool it soon became the norm for under-skilled drivers to be put in charge of them because the older, wiser drivers refused to work 20 per cent longer for no additional pay.

Yes, you heard that right, a B-double driver is only paid an extra 1.5c per kilometre, that equates to around $12 a day extra for all the additional hours worked.

We wonder why truck driving is now a taboo subject among young people who see the long hours, the time away from home, loved ones and friends with such poor remuneration as a real turn off.

The latest shift to allowing Road Trains unfettered access to the highway network will no doubt exacerbate this problem twofold, the fruit of this folly will become evident each year as more and more ill-equipped, poorly-trained drivers are thrown in to the pool to sink or swim.

Without a transformation in the industry addressing the long hours for little reward, the constant scrutiny paced on drivers and the overzealous policing, the future looks as bleak as it always has in the past.

  • For Turpie’s full inquiry submission, and a list of the others, click here.

1 Comment

  1. exactly kilometre rate is essentially trip money. trip money was outlawed. but the industry in particular the big companies got it back in by changing the name and as words have meaning and a defined meaning when it comes to law it was deemed to be all okay. its legal wage theft. the companies use it to not pay drivers for all the other duties they MUST perform to get the truck and the freight from a to b in a safe manner.

    what could work very well and the companies would support it is have a flat hourly rate. say 35 dollars a hr no matter what you do or when you do it, loading unloading driving flat rate. whether it 9 am on monday or midnight on sunday you get the same rate. it would improve safety especially if the work diary became the time sheet whats on the page is what you get paid for if you recorded 14hrs you get paid for 14 hrs if it was 12 and a half you get paid 12 and a half.

    it would make the accounting easier for companies and the drivers. it would mean everyone took home more money and it would be fairer no argument the John is getting more overtime than Bill because it wouldn’t exist.

    we have a 24hr 7 day society and have done for 30yrs or more, why are we still in the 1970s with our wages system?

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