The federal government has succeeded in scrapping the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal (RSRT). Legislation to abolish the tribunal passed the Senate without Labor and the Green's support on April 18 after two hours of debate.
The bill passed 36 to 32 with the support of the crossbench except Ricky Muir from the Motoring Enthusiast Party.
The RSRT was established by the Julia Gillard government in 2012, with the task of promoting safety in the road transport industry, primarily through pay. It was created after the National Transport Commission found in 2008 that there was a link between driver remuneration and safety for truck drivers. The commission recommended a national scheme to set minimum safe rates of pay for employee and owner drivers, so they did not need to engage in risky practices to rush deliveries.
“When truck drivers are not paid a safe rate, they are left with no choice but to skip on maintenance, speed and drive while fatigued, or risk not being able to keep a roof over their family's heads,” New South Wales secretary of the Transport Workers Union (TWU) Michael Aird said. “The Prime Minister has put winning votes in an election on July 2 ahead of safety on our roads — this is as low as you can get.”
The tribunal was independent of the Fair Work Commission and regulated both employee and contractor drivers, their employers and hirers, and participants in the supply chain, such as supermarkets.
The RSRT spent its first two years examining the road transport sector before making its first order: the Road Transport and Distribution and Long Distance Operations Road Safety Remuneration Order 2014 (Road Transport Order).
The Road Transport Order set minimum requirements such as safe driving plans, payment time, drug and alcohol policies, training, whistle-blower protection and dispute resolution. Its only reference to remuneration imposed a requirement that when owner drivers issue invoices for payment they must be paid within 30 days.
Its second order, the Contractor Driver Minimum Payments Road Safety Remuneration Order 2016 (Payments Order), which was the subject of hysterical claims of 70,000 truck drivers losing their homes, established national minimum payments for long-distance drivers and drivers for supermarket chains such as Coles and Woolworths. It was due to come into force on April 4.
Hailed by unions as a "world first", the ruling ensured drivers would be paid for loading and unloading times, including the time spent cleaning, servicing, inspecting and repairing trailers and trucks.
It is understandable that some owner drivers — who are among the most poorly paid in the industry, have extensive debt wrapped up in their trucks and make a marginal living at best — were anxious about this payment order. However, their situation will not improve until the supermarket chains, product manufacturers and others at the top of the food chain start negotiating decent pay into their contracts. With the RSRT abolished, these corporations will continue to avoid responsibility.
Employment lawyer Alan McDonald said: “By abolishing the Tribunal, the issue of safety on the roads and payments of employees by employers will be dependent on negotiations between transport operators and their drivers. There will be no dedicated regulator where safety and fairness in the road transport industry is required.”
He said that without a regulator, drivers “will face competition from unscrupulous employers who will be free to engage in unsafe practices to the disadvantage of those transport operators with higher and costlier business models including safer standards and higher paid employees.”
Given that the tribunal was set up to ensure that road safety was not compromised by over-working drivers and causing accidents because the drivers were poorly paid and drove too hard for too long, McDonald said its abolition will affect every road user.
Aird said: “When the death toll from fatal truck crashes on our roads continues to rack up, part of the blame must be sheeted home to this government. More than 2500 people have been killed in truck crashes over the past decade and the government's response was to abolish the one tribunal that could address the systemic problems in the industry.
“Mr Turnbull deliberately ignored the link between pay rates for all truck drivers and safety on our roads that has been proven over decades of research by independent academics, coroners and parliamentary inquiries.
“It is transport workers and everyone who shares the roads with them who will suffer from this decision. Meanwhile, the big transport clients, who happen to be major donors to the Liberal Party, like Coles, Westpac and BP, won't be held to account for their economic squeeze on transport workers that leads to devastation on our roads.”