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Deep fissure reopens between big end of town and the rest

SME segment, including WA trucking, calls out powerful interests’ narrow horizons


A simmering face-off between the biggest and most powerful businesses and small to medium enterprises (SMEs) has hit full boil and trucking is helping put the division into sharp focus.

The heat is turned up in Canberra amongst employer bodies, where Council of Small Business Organisations Australia (COSBOA), backed by Australasian Convenience and Petroleum Marketers Association (ACPMA), lashes the federal government for dropping measures tackling wage theft following pressure from big business, The Australian newspaper reports.

This is met by a counter-strike by the “big end of town”, in the form of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI), Australian Industry Group (Ai Group) and, most trenchantly, Australian Mines and Metals Association (AMMA).

They argue that higher penalties for directors for wage theft must be part of wider industrial relations reforms, while COSBOA and ACPMA argue the wage theft issue is beyond industrial relations and should not be held hostage to it.

COSBOA and ACPMA see unfair competition being allowed to flourish while members who do the right thing are financially penalised and COSBOA chief executive Peter Strong accuses big business bodies such as the ACCI and Master Builders’ Association (MBA) of sabotaging past efforts to protect small business from their depredations .

The context is the failure of the federal government to pass its full suite of industrial relations reforms and shelving of measures that could have passed the Senate.

But the split is being played out ideologically through differing approaches to dealing with the unions, particularly the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), with COSBOA seeing more to be gained through consultation.

This leads to the AMMA accusing it of acting like “a fully owned subsidiary of the ACTU”.

The war of words comes amid continuing SME concern that progress on shortening payment times, a particular issue for the Australian Trucking Association (ATA), has stalled or is sliding backward under the cover of Covid-19.

Against this backdrop but separately is Western Australia’s Heavy Vehicle Driving Operations Skill Set (HVDOSS) training program, set up by the Western Australian government to tackle the truck-driver shortage that is costing mining companies amongst other dearly.

The HVDOSS has been pushed jointly and successfully by the Western Roads Federation (WRF) and the state Transport Workers Union (TWU), along with the Livestock & Rural Transport Association of WA (LRTAWA).

But with large mining and other interests, now including Rio Tinto, complaining about the lack of particular recruits hurting their operations, WRF CEO Cam Dumesny sees the shortage of skilled labour, especially truck drivers, as the logical outcome of the big end of town’s own exploitative approach to the industry.

This is due to fleets as the traditional path to increasing driver skills being unable to afford the training, plus also being crimped on equipment upgrades.

“We’ve squeezed the guts out of the transport industry for long enough,” Dumesny, who was unaware of the employer stoush in the east when speaking to ATN, says.

“If you’re not making money, you can’t invest in training as an industry.

“The fact is that the big end of town is now starting to realise that we need truck drivers and we need the transport industry . . . well don’t keep squeezing us down on rates.

“Our industry has to make a profit!”

While seeing the beginnings of a change in mindsets, he casts as erroneous the view of freight transport as merely a cost.

“The primary purpose of transport is to move something from A to B, where it is going to be of greater value,” Dumesny says.

“They forget that we are a value-add to their industry.”

Read how the WRF identified the driver shortage as an economy-wide issue, here

Meanwhile, in the same quarterly production report in which Rio Tinto noted skills shortages, it points to moves to curtail reliance on WA road freight.

“On 19 February, we announced a new commercial freight shipping service connecting Western Australia’s Pilbara region to Singapore,” it notes.

“We expect the service to reduce the lead-time for goods by six to ten days compared with freight via Fremantle, and potentially provide opportunities for local Pilbara businesses.

“Additionally, the new service is expected to provide an annual saving of around three million litres of diesel fuel by reducing road travel from Perth by more than 3.8 million kilometres.”

Dumesny’s intervention comes as new Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman (ASBFEO) Bruce Billson calls on the government-owned member of the big end of town, Australia Post, to defer its plans to stop delivering perishable goods from June 30, saying this would be “a crushing blow to small business producers”.

Billson sees the date as a self-imposed deadline that could be delayed to work through its concerns, to support small business food producers.

“Given Australia Post has 80 per cent share of the total delivery market, this abrupt decision could prove to be devastating to those small business food producers who rely on this essential postage service,” he adds.

“So many small businesses moved to selling their products online as a result of the Covid crisis. They need some additional time to consider what options they have to fulfil their orders.

“We strongly encourage Australia Post to consider the impact this will have on their small business customers and to work with regulators to find a way to continue this essential service.  

“Australia Post says the carriage of perishable food requirements differ state-by-state however there has been a national Food Regulation Agreement in place since 2000.

“My office has reached out to Australia Post and the state small business commissioners, who have all expressed their willingness to facilitate discussions with industry regulators, to help resolve any issues Australia Post is experiencing across the delivery network.

“It is crucial to support small businesses as they work to recover from an incredibly challenging 12 months.

“Part of that is ensuring essential services such as postage of goods are both readily available and affordable to these affected small businesses.”


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