Senate debates

Tuesday, 31 August 2021


Road Safety Joint Select Committee (2019); Government Response to Report

5:01 pm

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That the Senate take note of the document.

Photo of Tony SheldonTony Sheldon (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] I rise to speak on the government 's response to the Joint Select Committee on Road Safety report titled Improving road safety in Australia. That report was delivered on 30 October 2020. I want to start by thanking the senators and members of the committee for this report, particularly my colleagues the member for Cunningham, the member for Kingsford Smith and Senator Glenn Sterle, and, of course, the deputy chair of the committee, my friend and colleague Senator Alex Gallacher, for whom road safety was such a priority for many years, not only in this place but also at the Transport Workers Union.

It is disappointing that it has taken almost a year for the government to deliver its response to this report. Road safety is an urgent, deadly issue, which requires an urgent and comprehensive response. It is an issue which impacts each and every Australian, and it particularly impacts workers in the road transport sector, for whom the road is their workplace. Far too many transport workers die on our roads every year—in trucks, vans and cars, and on motorcycles, mopeds and pushbikes.

Increasingly, transport workers are engaged through an app, and, of course, their boss is an algorithm. The actual companies who ultimately control the app claim they have no responsibility for the safety of their workers. We have seen how this form of sham contracting has impacted on the safety of drivers and riders at Uber, Deliveroo and others. Australia watched with horror last year as five delivery riders lost their lives in just a matter of months: Dede Fredy, Xiaojun Chen, Chow Khai Shien, Bijoy Paul and Ik Wong. In June of this year we learned that there had been a sixth death, of Burak Dogan, whose death was covered up by Uber. It was covered up by Uber and not reported because he was killed 25 minutes after his last trip. He was still logged into the app until the moment of his death, but, because of the 25-minute gap after his last delivery, Uber and Uber's insurers have refused to pay insurance to his family. Because Uber called him a contractor rather than an employee, he and his family did not have access to workers compensation.

Just two weeks ago we learned that there had been even more incidents that Uber failed to share with regulators. The New South Wales Point to Point Transport Commissioner revealed that Uber had failed to report more than 500 serious incidents, including sexual assaults and serious crashes, over an 18-month period. This is a company which not only dodges taxes and dodges our industrial relations laws but also dodges any obligation it has to safety, wherever possible.

Uber, quite simply, thinks it's above the law, and its arrogance and recklessness are a threat to the safety and wellbeing of everyone on Australian roads. Because Uber classifies its drivers as independent contractors, it also manages to avoid paying the Australian minimum wage. In fact, we know that Uber Eats riders are earning as little as $6.67 an hour. It is a return to Dickensian work conditions.

In road transport, we know that unsustainable rates lead to unsafe decisions on the road, with people not being able to maintain their vehicles if they want to be able to keep their contract, keep their job and put food on the table. We know that because, for decades, owner-drivers and employees alike, together with the Transport Workers Union, have sought a system of safe rates. To quote the Joint Select Committee on Road Safety report:

… heavy trucks were involved in 14.7 per cent of fatalities in 2016, despite making up just 3.13 per cent of registered vehicles …

The connection between pay and safety is now recognised in most of the road transport industry, both in Australia and around the world. To quote the Transport Workers Union: 'The common thread between drivers' health and risk-taking behaviours is pressure imposed upon truck drivers by their clients, particularly those at the apex of the supply chain.' This view is supported by local and international experts. The International Labour Organization says, 'After an extensive review of all of the literature that links pay and safety, this link has now been internationally recognised.' Emeritus Professor Michael Quinlan has said, 'Extensive academic research stretching over a 40-year period supports the relationship between payment levels, subcontracting and an array of OH&S outcomes, including crashes and injuries.' On the employer side, Paul Ryan, from the Australian Road Transport Industrial Organisation, has said that it is essential to ensure:

… that, when something's contracted down two, three or four times and everyone takes their clip, the person down the bottom of that chain, whether it be a transport company or an owner operator, is paid a fair rate for the job that they're doing.

Payment rates that make sure that people are able to maintain the vehicles are critical to avoiding incentivisation of risky behaviour. The choice about taking a fair wage, about maintaining your vehicle and about what you do regarding the dangers on the road should not be a consequence of employers demanding and allowing systems where people are on subsistence wages and are extended and stressed to do this work in any way possible. This type of behaviour is commonplace, and the misuse of market power encourages unsafe behaviour.

There have been attempts in the past to introduce these protections, including the failed Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal. Unfortunately, the RSRT did not live up to what many in the transport industry had hoped. It did not live up to what I, as a former National Secretary of the Transport Workers Union, had hoped. But, although the RSRT ultimately failed, when it was removed by the Turnbull government it was replaced with nothing. Without any sort of protection or enforcement of safe rates, we saw the number of crashes involving truck drivers spike in the years after the RSRT was dissolved. There is blood on the Prime Minister's hands.

We are seeing conditions for owner-drivers and employee-drivers go from bad to worse. When owner-driver Frank Black wrote a column in Owner/Driver magazine railing against unsafe rates, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission sent him a letter threatening criminal charges. What did Frank say that was so outrageous? I will quote the column. He said:

… I am unfortunately missing my grandson's first birthday for a job I would have otherwise turned down. Sacrificing our rest days and family life now is necessary to help keep the wheels turning in an attempt to ensure our business survives in a few months' time … We can't afford for rates to be lowered anywhere in the industry.

All that will happen if we undersell our work is that we all end up going bust.

Was it an outrageous overstep? It certainly was an outrageous overstep by the ACCC.

I've made this point to the ACCC chair, Rod Sims, at budget estimates, as have Senator Sterle and Senator Scarr. Mr Sims did not apologise for sending that letter. He was of the view that Frank Black's conduct may have been against the law. And that really demonstrates how grossly inadequate the laws for owner-drivers are in Australia. This response has been tabled just days after 7,000 owner-drivers and employee-drivers went on strike at Toll, while an additional 8,000 truck drivers at Linfox, Bevchain, StarTrack and FedEx are also heading towards strikes. When you have 15,000 truck drivers, across five major transport companies, heading to industrial action, what you have is big multinational companies being allowed to attack the rights and pay of workers and small-business owners.

Those 7,000 Toll drivers are standing up against a proposal to bring in new employees on precarious, short-term contacts and outside hires on lower pay. It's a trick we are seeing across the economy: companies bringing in external workers on lower rates of pay and conditions to undercut their own workforce. We've seen it at Qantas, where the most antiworker CEO in Australia, Alan Joyce, set up his own labour hire company, Qantas Ground Services, to undercut his own Qantas employees. He then undercut them even further by contracting their jobs out to third parties.

We're also seeing it in the mining industry, with labour hire casuals getting paid 24 per cent less, on average, than direct mine employees. We're also seeing it at Amazon— (Time expired)

5:11 pm

Photo of Wendy AskewWendy Askew (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator Sheldon, do you seek leave to continue your remarks?

Photo of Tony SheldonTony Sheldon (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.