Lack of understanding led to RSRT’s demise says driver

By: Anjali Behl


Rob Bell believes 'safe rates' RSRO was the best chance Australia had to make the industry more equitable

Lack of understanding led to RSRT’s demise says driver
Rob Bell says the 'safe rates' RSRO was no different to imposing a minimum wage for other workers in Australia.

 

With the federal elections just around the corner and views within the transport industry still largely polarised with regards to a need for the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal (RSRT), the debate on the future of the tribunal and its minimum rates order is expected to heat up again.

ATN speaks with Rob Bell, an employee driver working for a New South Wales-based transport company, who believes that RSRT must be reinstated to ensure a safe and equitable transport industry in Australia.

Bell has been associated with the Australian transport sector for almost 30 years.

During this period he’s worked in the fuel and bulk haulage sectors, and driven road trains through Western Australia and Northern Territory.

A stint working in the criminal justice field in the UK helped him develop a greater understanding of legal issues than an average truck driver, he feels.

Bell highlights how the Contractor Driver Minimum Payments Road Safety Remuneration Order 2016 (RSRO) was designed to benefit not just contractor drivers, but employee drivers and transport companies as well.

He says that owing to some ambiguity in the definition of the term ‘contractor driver’ it has largelky been misinterpreted that the 2016 Order was confined to individual independent contractors only.

"This however is incorrect as it also affected all drivers employed by owner-drivers, as well as fleets.

"Employed drivers were also covered by the 2014 Order."

Bell says the minimum rates order was the best chance Australia has had in the past three decades to make the transport industry more equitable.

"The 2016 Order, if it had been applied as intended would have finally given smaller operators the opportunity to compete on a more level playing field," Bell says.

"This is turn would have reduced the financial pressures on them, as well as giving them some continuity of supply."

While he does not believe that "any one instrument can ensure road safety or reduce deaths", he says the RSRT could have been one of the major stakeholders in a "holistic approach" to bring about safety reforms. 

"The current state based approach to heavy vehicle safety seems to be compliance and camera based, whilst not addressing the underlying problems within the industry.

"Increasing the regulatory burden and cost only increase the factors that the RSRO sought to address."

Bell says redirecting funds from the RSRT to the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator (NHVR) is counterproductive to the safety and compliance issue.

"The RSRT Order was federal law, whilst the Heavy Vehicle National Law (HVNL) and HVNR are state based legislation and entities.

"By diverting these funds, the federal government appears to be sending the message that some lives matter more than others in Australia.

"Western Australia, Northern Territory and the ACT do not have these so-called HVNL on their statutes."

The issue of lack of compliance is another huge problem in the industry.

Rising costs and shrinking revenue forces drivers to spend more time on the road, which results in increased chance of accidents, he says.

"With the abolition of the tribunal, there appears to be no legislative force behind the mandated enforcement of award conditions.

"This leaves employed drivers in a virtual void, with little chance of independently navigating the myriad of legislative roadblocks that exist in the federal industrial relations framework. 

"The Fair Work Ombudsman, at this point of time, has no force in law, and cannot do any more than voluntary consensual mediation for the recovery of underpaid wages and entitlements."

As a member of the Transport Workers Union (TWU) Bell acknowledges the union’s support to drivers and its efforts in "getting awards enshrined in the Australian workplace".

However, he says the TWU’s primary spokesperson Tony Sheldon erred in the promotion of the minimum rates order.

He says although the union was right in highlighting the intrinsic link between road safety and freight rates, it did not highlight how the order was designed to bring about other operational improvements within the transport sector.

"Just having a fatigued driver on the road is potentially an accident waiting to happen, and having the weight of financial pressure on your shoulders shoulders is extra incentive to make owners, and employed drivers work that little bit extra than would normally be prudent.

"The TWU has solely focused on this point, rather than trying to explain that the order covered the entire industry, apart from the noted exceptions such as the fuel and gas sectors etc.

"If this was explained to the masses, then perhaps a greater overall understanding could have been achieved."

Bell says most of the owner-drivers and mum and dad businesses that campaigned against the order were ill-informed of the effects of the order, which was designed to benefit them as well as contractor drivers.

They were "acting on the basis of information received via social media, press releases and advice from industry associations.

"To my knowledge, not one of these sources has been factual or explanatory. 

"The order placed the onus to pay the minimum rate on the hirer, or consignor of goods, yet the catch cry was ‘If we charge more, they will stop using us or buy more trucks of their own’.

"The order was no different to imposing a minimum wage for other workers in Australia."

It would have given the "so called ‘bottom feeders’ a bigger slice of the pie".

Bell says buying a truck is far too easy today and with more and more people entering the industry, there is increased competition and the ‘safe rates’ RSRO could have helped operators improve efficiency.

"The order would have given some operators the opportunity to get smarter about how they do business, and achieve gains by offering a better service in a niche market."

The fact that the order was written using legal terminology made it difficult for many to comprehend all the factors involved, he says.

"It is a pity the order was written in legalese however; it would have been difficult, if not impossible, for an average person to comprehend the entirety of the document."

"Even some of the politicians involved in the campaign against it appeared not to have understood it, even the ones who were solicitors in the past."

The confusion heightened since the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) was "inexplicably silent" during the initial phase of creating awareness about the various aspects of the order, he says.

However, he raises doubt whether the FWO’s silence during the debate was an operational shortcoming or an obligated silence.

"Given the obvious political motivation of the Liberal Party during the debate, and the blatant vote buying tactics of the endangered independents, it could be safely assumed that perhaps the FWO was muzzled. 

"This type of tactic is not unprecedented in recent political history in Australia, and the notion of ’independent’ Ombudsman has largely gone out the window."

Bell reserves a large portion of the blame for the confusion and misunderstanding of the order on industry bodies and accuses them of acting in the interest of their members that include "medium to large fleet owners who employ drivers and sub-contractors".

"They [industry bodies] have all largely been silent in their support of mum and dad owner-drivers in the past, yet suddenly became amazingly supportive once the order was apparent.

"One only has to look at the membership and corporate sponsors of these associations to see the various vested interests complicit with keeping the status quo. 

"These associations could offer no evidence to the tribunal in support of their oppositional arguments and were simply acting in the interest of their member base.
Bell strongly feels that the tribunal should be reinstated for the benefit of the entire industry.

However, with the Liberal Party’s evident opposition to it, all hopes remain on Labor to resurrect the tribunal and bring back the ‘safe rates’ order.

He says if Labor comes to power in the upcoming elections and goes ahead in the re-establishment of the Road Safety Remuneration System, industry stakeholders must take "proactive rather than a reactive" approach.

"If all the stakeholders involved can take a sensible and measured approach, rather than an emotive knee-jerk one, a great deal could be achieved.

"The tribunal can work, for the good of all concerned, if it is embraced as a viable and vital instrument for the good of all the industry and road users."

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