Prime Mover Magazine

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Warren Clark

Labor Plan would be end of the road for owner-drivers

June 2018

Australia’s road freight industry quite literally keeps this country moving. On an average day, around five million tonnes of freight are moved within Australia. Over three-quarters of Australia’s non-bulk freight is carried on roads.

Daily activities many of us take for granted – from driving a car, to preparing a meal for our family, to brushing our teeth – are only possible due, in large part, to the road freight industry moving the goods we need.
The road freight industry is a major employer and economic driver for Australia. There are more than 45,000 large and small trucking companies employing more than 140,000 Australians. The majority of businesses are small operators, running two trucks or fewer.

About 70 per cent of road transport operators have only one truck in their fleet. Those who own and drive their own truck are referred to as owner-drivers.

In April this year, Federal Labor announced that if elected it would seek to reinstate a tribunal to set pay and conditions for truck drivers.
The Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal (RSRT) has already proved it puts at risk the viability of our owner-drivers – the backbone of Australia’s vital road freight industry.

Disbanded in 2016, the RSRT created an unlevelled playing field that pushed many owner-drivers to the brink.

The RSRT model established a payment order that applied a minimum freight rate only to owner-drivers. Larger companies were not subject to these same mandated rates.

The result of this discriminatory regulation was that owner-drivers found themselves unable to compete with the rates being offered by their competitors to their customers, forcing many to close their doors.

While the argument cited for reinstating the RSRT is road safety, inquiries by two independent bodies, the Productivity Commission and the Small Business Ombudsman, found that this, short-sighted, approach did nothing to improve safety on our roads. 

The RSRT’s only lasting achievement in its first iteration was to put small business owners under intense emotional and financial stress.

During its investigation, the Small Business Ombudsman heard that the prescription of pay rates not only led to business closures, but caused such emotional harm to hard-working small business owners that some took their own lives.

Without smaller operators, many Australians will find themselves out of work and our transport sector will cease to be as internationally competitive and efficient as it is today.

Resurrecting the RSRT will significantly harm the road transport industry while doing nothing to reduce deaths on Australian roads.

The RSRT has already demonstrated there is no link between remuneration and safety. Instead the road transport sector must continue to proactively develop practical initiatives to reduce the road toll.

Safety is a priority for the road transport industry. It is seeking laws and systems, which advance the aim of reaching zero road fatalities.

Better roads, better rest areas for heavy vehicle drivers, chain of responsibility laws, and technological change that engineers out many safety problems, such as mandated Electronic Stability Control in new trucks, contribute more to road safety than the RSRT ever did or can.

Through the sector’s efforts, accidents have declined significantly over the past decade. The industry has worked hard to make its drivers and the community safe. Research shows this work is having an effect as collisions involving fatalities show the truck was not at fault on  93 per cent of occasions.

Australia’s national land freight task is expected to grow by around 75 per cent between 2011 and 2031. We won’t be able to keep up with this demand without a strong and sustainable road freight industry.

We need to keep our owner-drivers on the road and oppose any move to resurrect the failed RSRT.

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