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Sterle threatens fisticuffs as safe rates passes

Release date: 21/03/2012

The Federal Government has succeeded in its push to reshape trucking pay rates, but not before a Labor senator threatened to slap around his Coalition counterpart for opposing the reform.

Australian Transport News

The Greens and Independent Nick Xenophon provided the numbers the government needed to pass its Road Safety Remuneration Bill through the Senate late last night, clearing the way for a tribunal to begin on July 1 to set pay rates and conditions for drivers. 

The tribunal is designed to improve road safety by ensuring drivers are paid enough to discourage them from committing unsafe practices, such as speeding and breaking fatigue laws.

A 2008 National Transport Commission (NTC) report blamed low rates of pay for poor safety in the trucking industry. Furthermore, coronial inquests and studies from professors Michael Belzer, Ann Williamson and Michael Quinlan have all concluded there is a link.

During the debate on the Bill, former truckie and now Labor Senator Glenn Sterle confronted the opposition’s spokesman on workplace relations, Eric Abetz, who claimed the link “has no basis in fact”.

Sterle (pictured), who previously asked opposition spokesman on transport Warren Truss to debate him on pay and safety, threw down the same invitation to Abetz and also went one further. 

“Let us take the fight out there, Senator Abetz. Come on out mate. You pick the states, you pick the trucking yards,” Sterle said yesterday.
“I will blue you, I will debate you.”

During Abetz’s speech on the Bill, Sterle uttered: “I’m sick of listening to your crap.” He then went on to describe the Tasmanian senator as “an absolute disgrace”.

“While Senator Abetz was playing kiddie politics in the Liberal Party in the Tasmanian University, or wherever he went, I was playing with road trains. Bring it on, Senator Abetz.”

Sterle, whose family has a long involvement in the industry, says truck drivers need to be paid enough to make a decent living and support their family. He criticised those who dismiss a link between pay and safety.

“Do you think we truckies got home feeling like trash every week because we loved to feel like trash? We felt like that because our rates of pay did not adequately provide us with the ability to have a minimum of eight hours sleep,” Sterle says.

Abetz claims the tribunal will impose more regulation on the trucking industry without leading to any improvements in safety. He says heavy vehicle fatalities have fallen in recent years despite a rise in the number of trucks on the road. 

“There is no logical basis to link remuneration with road safety,” he says.

Abetz is also critical of the tribunal’s ability to set conditions for owner-drivers.

“We will for the first time have a new type of employment relationship whereby independent contractors in the heavy vehicle sector are treated differently to independent contractors in any other industry,” he says.

The tribunal will be free to investigate individual sectors, practices and issues in the industry, such as waiting times and payment terms.

It will have the power to determine minimum rates and conditions for drivers, with decisions binding on all parties in the road freight supply chain.


TAKING ON WOOLWORTHS AND COLES
Independent Senator Nick Xenophon threw his support behind the Bill, saying it represents an opportunity to “protect truckies from the insidious pressures that come down the supply chain”.

“Our nation’s truck drivers face unrealistic and often impossible deadlines and schedules. This results in truckies driving too far, too fast and for too long. In these circumstances our truck drivers are set up to crash, with deadly consequences,” he says.

Xenophon targeted Coles and Woolworths, saying their market dominance allows them to dictate delivery schedules and rates. 

“There is a real issue of drivers being forced to queue, unpaid, for hours to load and unload at the depots of Woolworths and Coles, forcing drivers to then work long hours to make a buck,” he says.

Xenophon says the reform is about creating safer roads by protecting drivers from those in the supply chain imposing unrealistic schedules.

“I find it remarkable that we are here debating to give truckies a fair go, to remunerate them properly and also to remove those pressures on supply lines,” he says.

NSW Nationals Senator John Williams, who voted against the Bill, has urged the government to pump more money into rest areas for truck drivers. He says he has approached NSW Roads Minister Duncan Gay with similar requests. 

The Australian Logistics Council wants the tribunal’s reach limited and for it to include industry representatives. 

“From ALC’s perspective, we do not want to see the tribunal straying into areas other than road safety, as this has the potential to significantly impact on the ability of businesses to run their operations in a commercially efficient manner,” ALC Managing Director Michael Kilgariff says.

The tribunal will be made up of a combination of Fair Work Australia members, industry representatives and workplace health and safety experts.

A former organiser with the Transport Workers Union, Senator Mark Furner, says the government needs to protect truck drivers.

“Let’s face it. Just about everything we use, everything we wear, everything we consume comes on a truck. This is why we need to look after drivers and ensure that they have the right to work in a safer workplace environment – the same basic rights that many of us already enjoy,” he says.

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