Customers dismiss COR and treat truckies like 'slaves'

Powerful customers are flexing their economic muscle to impose a master-servant relationship on truck drivers and operators

Customers dismiss COR and treat truckies like 'slaves'
Dismissing COR, customers treat truckies like 'slaves'
By Brad Gardner | August 28, 2012

Powerful customers are flexing their economic muscle to impose a master-servant relationship on truck drivers and operators, as supply chain arrogance and a lack of enforcement conspire to undermine chain of responsibility laws.

Interim findings released as part of an in-depth university study to be completed next year reveal customers, particularly in retail, are using incentive-based payments and verbal threats of no work to pressure drivers to deliver goods as quickly as possible and at the expense of safety.

The study, which quizzed 70 drivers, employers, managers, receivers, schedulers and consignors, reveals many drivers and operators feel they are being reduced to slave status because they are working for a pittance and have no say in scheduling. Customers, too, openly admit they hold the whip hand.

"The perception that the customer is king was widely viewed, with the majority of stakeholders believing that there exists a master-slave mentality in the industry," lead researcher Dr Angela Wallace from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) says.

"The perception was right up and down the supply chain, which was really interesting."

Chain of responsibility laws are designed to improve safety by holding all parties involved in transporting goods accountable, but the feedback researchers have received so far indicates customers do not give a toss about their obligations.

"A logistics manager at a big retail company said they have got no fear of prosecution whatsoever because there haven’t really been any successful prosecutions in terms of chain of responsibility," Wallace says.

She says customers are well aware chain of responsibility exists but do not believe they will ever be caught out. She says the absence of a prosecution has led many in the industry to believe customers are immune from having to comply.

"They’ve definitely got no fear. They don’t want to hurt people but they’re the big powerful companies and they’re not going to be prosecuted," is how Wallace describes the mentality of customers.

Another logistics manager symbolised the scant regard customers have for chain of responsibility, telling Wallace and her team there is "more fear of injuring employees/visitors than being prosecuted for COR breaches".

Most respondents who took part in the study blame a "dire lack of enforcement" of the laws by authorities. Wallace says government prosecutors do not have enough resources and that a lack of on-road enforcement is hampering chain of responsibility’s effectiveness.

"They just don’t have the enforcement. They’ve got all these rules and regulations but there’s just no-one out there really," she says.

Queensland Transport Workers Union (TWU) Secretary Peter Biagini (pictured) says retailers are more concerned about moving their products and lining their pockets than addressing dangerous road behaviour.

"The retail gorillas that control the supply chain wield so much power that industry change cannot happen without them drastically lifting their safety practices," he says.

Biagini has singled out Coles, saying it needs to take its chain of responsibility obligations more seriously. He has also put heat on Queensland Premier Campbell Newman, who is attempting to sack 20,000 public servants. At least 2,000 jobs are tipped to go from the Department of Transport and Main Roads.

"We agree that better enforcement is necessary, but in Queensland’s case it is hard to see how that will be possible with Campbell Newman’s deep cuts to the department," Biagini says.

"The premier has to guarantee that no enforcement and compliance jobs go. Without that guarantee, he will have blood on his hands."

The interim results of the study, which will be presented at an international transport safety conference later this month, claim large firms are exploiting owner-drivers. Wallace says they try and wipe their hands clean of any responsibility when they outsource work.

"That’s why big companies pretty much love subbies, really," she says.

Although the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal, which will have the power to investigate transport practices and set pay rates, is expected to improve the lot of drivers and operators, the study indicates customers are growing even more powerful.

"The Global Financial Crisis (GFC) appears to have further elevated the degree of power asymmetry in the industry and placed more pressure on transport companies to yield to power influences," it states.

"At the same time, many industry stakeholders interviewed considered power and control to be an omnipresent, unmanageable part of everyday core business."

The study, which allowed respondents to remain anonymous, also pointed to the growth of a new culture in the trucking industry that is splitting aged road warriors and a new breed of drivers into separate categories.

According to responses from interviewees, an old culture exists which is "fast, hard and heavy [and] breaking every rule in the book to move freight quickly".

One respondent claims older drivers are stuck in their ways and consider injuries a "badge of honour", while another told researchers older drivers demonstrate "loyalty to the culture rather than the company".

Researchers believe a new culture began to sprout in the mid to late 1990s centred on the notion of "it’s smart to be safe".

Respondents claim the new culture is made up of employers caring about the wellbeing of their drivers and ensuring they take rest breaks, adopting a proactive approach to safety, eating healthy and "wanting to do the right thing".

Wallace says there has been significant efforts over the past decade to clean up the trucking industry but there is, and will continue to be, about 10 to 15 percent of those who cling to the old culture.

"I don’t think the old one will die out," she says.

"Even with this tribunal things will hopefully change significantly but there’s always going to be the people who are just prepared to do anything."

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