July 2, 2019

Owner-Driver column: Undercut to oblivion

Frank Black, June 2019


The ‘every man for himself’ model isn’t working for owner-drivers. We need to stick together.

It’s easy to forget that we’re all cogs in a wheel that is crucial to everyday life in Australia. We recognise each other more easily as competitors than teammates. But in reality, we all make up a powerful driving force that this country relies on. Our lunchroom is exchanged for truck stops and our offices are on wheels. We share the same issues; we’re all away from home and we can often feel isolated. We have many of the same interests. We have the ability to take control of our industry if we’d only stop fighting with each other and start fighting for our rights.

Out on the road, I met a fellow owner-driver who said to me: “What I cart for has nothing to do with anybody else.” Well as I explained to him, what we cart for does affect other owner-drivers therefore it has plenty to do with all of us on the road.

When we undercut each other and do cheap work, it eventually sends us all to the same fate. Those of us who refuse to go to an unprofitable rate will be run out of business due to the lack of work. Eventually, those others who take jobs at a loss, will find themselves unable to meet their repair and maintenance, insurance and other associated costs, they will go bust too. The only difference is that for us in the first lot, our equipment won’t be so worn out by the end of it.

Lowest Rate Denominator

Apparently all it takes to be an entrepreneur in this industry is a pencil sharpener. We’re not judged on our operating credentials; our safety record, our professionalism, our ability to give a safe and efficient service or how much experience we have. There’s no license to prove that we can run a safe and efficient business or conditions of operation to keep us on the road. More often than not, we’re simply judged on the lowest rate we’re willing to accept. How did we let our worth get so low? I am sure that the ‘every man for himself’ mentality that is endemic in this industry has a lot to do with it. Perhaps what’s needed in the industry is a Licence to Operate with minimum rates and conditions attached.

This has been the way of the industry for too long. I’ve been driving for 30 years and in all that time, the resistance to change has been the same. We’ve been fighting over rates of pay for as long as I’ve been behind the wheel. It’s causing feuds amongst drivers, it’s running businesses into the ground, and it’s stopping some from being safe on the roads.

Sure, there are some that are doing well and good luck to them, but we all share the road together and you never know when the pencil sharpener will shave away your earnings.

Meanwhile we’re lining the pockets of the rich at the top of the supply chain.

They don’t care when we go broke, because the industry is positioned to line up the next bloke who’ll run for nothing. And when they go broke, there’ll be another. But what happens when the industry runs dry? Those like me are long gone, and the undercutters are dropping off too.

Minuscule Profit

We know there’s a shortage of drivers. With the industry in its current state, that won’t be improving any time soon. How can we expect youngsters to be enticed into an industry that forces you to work day and night, spend days away from home, cop fines for circumstances often out of our control, and all for a minuscule profit? Costs are rising and rates are stagnated or getting worse. We can wait up to three months to be paid for a job, while our costs go out monthly. We’re bearing the cost of inflation every day.

Why shouldn’t we band together and demand more money?

The rumour mill about minimum rates of pay is always the same – that this is a ploy to put owner-drivers out of business. In fact, it’s the only time I hear owner-drivers coming together and talking about the collective rather than the individual. But all I’m hearing is an argument to enable owner-drivers to put themselves out of business.

It’s easy to cave to the scaremongering, and there’s been a lot of that around this issue. I urge my colleagues on the roads to keep yourselves informed, but from the right sources. The current system isn’t working for anyone but the wealthy. Before we judge a new system and assume the worst, let’s ask the right questions and look to the advantages.

If we came together in the calling for minimum rates rather than the opposing, we could save our industry. When we stand together, we can demand rights like 30-day payment terms and ensure we aren’t absorbing all the costs of rising expenses. We can make this a thriving industry that kids want to join.

We can set a standard, a floor that can’t be gone under. We can control our fate, but this time ensure it’s a prosperous one.

Frank Black has been a long distance owner-driver for more than 30 years. He is the current owner-driver representative on the ATA council.

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