Thursday, 2 September 2021
Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee; Report
[by video link] I rise to speak on the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee report Without trucks Australia stops: The development of a viable, safe, sustainable and efficient road transport industry. I would like to thank the committee again for the report and to thank the chair, Senator Glenn Sterle, in particular. Transport workers have been the backbone of Australia's response to the pandemic. They have kept supply chains moving through lockdowns, travel restrictions and international border closures. Like other essential workers in aged care, in the health system, in disability sector and in retail, truck drivers continue to be undervalued and overworked. That is why it is so disgraceful that Toll has chosen now, under the cover of the pandemic, to launch an attack on the pay and conditions that owner-drivers have built up over decades. Toll has been hard at work eroding these conditions across the country.
The New South Wales and Queensland branch of the TWU has been forced to take Toll to court over $52 million in unpaid late fees to owner-drivers. The fees relate to over 5,000 individual late payments over the Christmas period last year. New South Wales and Queensland state secretary of the Transport Workers Union, Richard Olsen, said: 'Drivers were going above and beyond to meet the highest demand that they have ever faced, Christmas during a pandemic. And the Christmas period is when they were ripped off.' These owner-drivers are small-business owners, usually just one person with one truck, and all they are asking for is to be paid by Toll on time. He said: 'Owner-drivers operate on wafer-thin margins.' It is a disgrace that they are forced to struggle with cash flow while their hard work has achieved record profits for the likes of Amazon, whose goods they transport through its contracts with Toll. Clearly, at the risk of their own health, they continue to work across state borders and work across areas of concern whilst complying with high safety standards.
Toll had a different approach. Paul, an owner-driver in New South Wales, had this to say about Toll's behaviour: 'We sat in a Zoom with Toll where they promised no redundancies, no short shifts and no closures if workers agreed to be paid every two weeks instead of every week. Three weeks later, they were down in Wollongong trying to close three depots and outsource the work. What's the point of a legal agreement if Toll aren't going to uphold their end of the deal?'
In Queensland, Toll have scrapped the owner-driver agreements they had had in place since 2000, which paid hourly rates for work completed. They have been replaced with inferior contracts under which drivers are paid a daily retainer and are only paid more if they manage to exceed a benchmark set for them each day, which 80 per cent of drivers aren't meeting. This works out to be, on average, an effective pay cut of $500 a week.
Not only have drivers seen a massive pay cut but this new payment model pushes owner-drivers to drive faster and make more deliveries in order to pay their mortgages and put food on the table. It may even put Uber to shame—heaven forbid! Owner-drivers must pay for the upkeep and maintenance of their own trucks. They deserve at least the certainty of a consistent, reliable payment for their work. Allen, an owner-driver at Toll, said: 'Drivers have to pay the mortgage and feed their family. You have to make those payments first. Then, if you're short, you have to make the money go forward enough for maintenance of the truck.'
Everyone who uses the road is less safe when owner-drivers are undercut and short-changed. I quote from the Queensland branch of the TWU: 'Despite a boom in transport throughout the pandemic, Toll is trying to cut its own labour costs and compete, but this is clearly not the answer.' When standards are dragged down in trucking, Australia's deadliest industry, people die. Already, more than 200 people have been killed in truck crashes this year alone.
Bill, another owner-driver from Toll, described the harrowing circumstances he, along with a number of others, has experienced, including the fact that visa holders, too scared to speak out for fear of jeopardising their job when working for subcontracting companies, are not paid overtime and are underpaid on the minimum wage. These are critically important areas where Toll needs to get its act together. It needs to start turning around and giving owner-drivers and contracting workers a proper wage in an appropriate arrangement. This government should stop sitting on its hands. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.
Leave granted; debate adjourned.