Sheldon starts swinging as hope fades for safe rates

TWU boss singles out government minister over delay in safe rates and has "no confidence" the reform will happen

Sheldon starts swinging as hope fades for safe rates
Sheldon starts swinging as hope for safe rates fades
By Brad Gardner | July 25, 2011

The Transport Workers Union has turned on the Federal Government over a lack of action on safe rates, singling out Workplace Relations Minister Chris Evans as incapable of acting in the interests of truck drivers.

Appearing on Sky News yesterday, TWU National Secretary Tony Sheldon assailed the government for not reforming pay rates in the wake of a 2008 report linking low remuneration with unsafe practices in the trucking industry.

The TWU wants a low-cost tribunal established within Fair Work Australia to rule on pay rates and conditions. The government released its Safe Rates, Safe Roads discussion paper late last year on possible reforms but has not yet responded to feedback from stakeholders or announced when it will finalise its position.

"We’ve got a minister who appears to be sitting on his hands," Sheldon says of Evans.

"We’ve got a minister who I would describe as the character out of Weekend at Bernie’s; he’s the dead guy that stands in the middle."

The union boss, who in recent weeks has been critical of the government’s carbon tax, is adamant that if Evans cannot deliver safe rates "then he should not be in that position, he should go".

Sheldon says there is a view within the union movement that Evans has been "deficient" in running his department and that he cannot hold staff accountable.

"I have no confidence in Chris Evans’s capacity to deal with the fundamental industrial relations issues in this country and the undertakings it will make working life in the trucking industry better and safer for all road users on our roads," he says.

Sheldon says the government’s inability to legislate safe rates despite there being support from industry, academia and across the political spectrum is a "substantial indictment".

In a statement to ATN, Evans says safe rates "is a serious issue" that the government is comprehensively investigating.

"In late November the government released a discussion paper which outlined a range of options for future action and sought feedback from the community and the sector. The period for public submissions concluded in March and the government is currently finalising its response," Evans says.

"There’s never any shortage of robust advice for industrial relations minister[s] but it’s unfortunate that Mr Sheldon has chosen to express his frustrations in the form of a personal attack."

The Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations says it needs to understand the potential impacts of legislating trucking pay rates before making any decision.

"The government wants to ensure a fair outcome for employees and owner drivers, while sustaining the long term viability of the road transport industry," it says in a statement.

As Prime Minister Julia Gillard prepared to unveil the carbon tax package earlier this month, Sheldon urged her to implement a safe rates scheme to protect employee drivers and sub-contractors from cost increases.

The tax will apply to trucking on July 1, 2014, increasing diesel prices by about 7 cents a litre. Sheldon believes owner-drivers will pay as much as $200 more in running costs unless they have some form of cost recovery.

TWU NSW Secretary Wayne Forno told ATN last month he was growing impatient with the lack of progress on safe rates.

The Safe Rates, Safe Roads discussion paper proposes a tribunal system, including extending the Fair Work Act to sub-contractors to grant them rights currently restricted to employees.

It also proposes the creation of an independent authority or a panel made up of representatives from industry and Fair Work Australia.

If established, the tribunal will have the power to set different rates for industry sectors. According to the paper, a safe rate will be the minimum rate necessary for an owner-driver to recover and earn the equivalent of the Award wage while driving safe and reasonable hours.

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