Worker freedom and flexibility being eroded by law changes

The Government’s move to “one size fits all” with its employment and immigration law changes will restrict the freedom and flexibility truck drivers currently enjoy.

With an election year coming, the unions are flexing their muscles. Fresh from making new employees be employed under terms consistent with the collective agreement for their first 30 days, as per changes to the Employment Relations Amendment Act 2018, they are chasing Fair Pay Agreements, and Multiple Employer Collective Agreements (MECAs). There is no interest in the wider road freight transport sector for MECA agreements.

The Government continues to ignore businesses that are happily going about their business without the restrictive hands of the unions. The RTF has recently submitted on the Designing a Fair Pay Agreements System Discussion Paper and the Addressing Temporary Migrant Worker Exploitation: Consultation Document. It’s almost a fulltime job trying to keep up with all the changes this Government wants to make to restrict business.

We do not support the Fair Pay Agreements (FPAs) because they will distort the market and create a number of undesirable outcomes. Unionising the workforce will not alleviate a worker shortage, or improve conditions. Quite the opposite will occur; it will make the road freight industry less attractive to people who want flexibility, including women who are enjoying working in trucking because the can start work early and get home in time to manage the day and after-school activities for their children.

This is at a time when we are focused on increasing diversity in our industry and encouraging employers to provide the flexibility to encourage that.

We believe the proposals in this particular discussion document risk returning the road freight transport industry to pre-1991 bargaining conditions, which we do not support. We want to move forwards, not back 30 years.

The employment landscape has changed since the heyday of the unions back somewhere in history. FPAs will be expensive and slow for employers and consequently, employees, particularly for the small to medium sized companies that make up the bulk of the road freight transport industry.

We believe a voluntary approach is more balanced with today’s business environment. Government support for industries, such as ours, rather than the demonising we are seeing with statements such as “getting dangerous trucks off the road”, would be more useful in solving both the road freight industry’s worker shortages and getting people who are out of work into rewarding careers.

The anti-immigration stance of this Government is making it so difficult for employers to employ the seasonal visitor workforce, those workers are no longer even coming here.

Recent changes to immigration policy also conspire against improving conditions in the workplace. Making it almost impossible to hire migrant truck drivers to pick up some of the workload will only increase the workload for New Zealand drivers. There is enough work to go around, with the road freight task increasing. There seems to be no logic in play.

We accept there is opportunity in New Zealand for worker exploitation – that is for all workers, not specifically migrants. We believe the best approach to this is to ensure first, education about rights under the law. The second step is to ensure the investigative resource is available and suitably trained to carry out effective investigations across the whole supply chain.

In our industry, drivers want choices about how and when they work. Trucking varies tremendously between different companies, regions, freight types and vehicles used. National, or even regional awards, are not going to be flexible enough to allow for that variation, or to meet driver needs. With driver shortages, good drivers have flexibility and are well paid.

The next line of attack from the Government is going to be on independent contractors, that is, people who want to work for themselves. The impacts of that go right to the heart of our industry – many owner-drivers work on contract to larger companies. This issue is currently being debated by the trucking industry in California, where the industry is saying it will dramatically affect upwards of 70,000 drivers who will possibly elect to either leave the state, or the occupation entirely. Submissions close on 14 February 2020 on the Better protections for contractors: Discussion document for public feedback, which is another one for our pile.

You are left wondering when the Government will start listening to the experts in business who drive the economy.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

Evidence base means better buy-in for change

It’s good when government officials listen to industry. It means better policy and greater buy-in, if people feel they have some control over their own destiny.

It’s also good when policy, law, rules and regulations are shaped by robust evidence – it makes for credibility.

So, the Road Transport Forum (RTF) is working with Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency (NZTA) as it looks at developing a replacement for the Operator Rating System (ORS) that has been used by Transport Service Licence (TSL) holders to understand how the regulator views their performance around compliance. ORS formally commenced in 2004 and many questions raised about its fairness have been raised over the years **.

RTF has been involved in workshops with NZTA to talk about how the system could work best for all.

We believe carrot works better than stick when it comes to applying road safety regulations to the road freight transport industry.

Trucking companies want to see their drivers return to base safely after every journey, without incident, and with no negative impacts on the safety of other road users. We want a safety system for commercial heavy vehicle operators that is based on most people doing the right thing, but has the capacity to work with those who fall below an acceptable safety standard.

New Zealand is highly regulated and road freight transport is bound by various laws (Acts of Parliament), regulation and rules. Businesses work best when regulation allows for innovation and productivity and doesn’t hinder individual freedom. The regulatory environment in New Zealand is expensive and that means costs for the end consumers that may not compare favourably with overseas competitors.

We want to see a transparent, risk-based regulatory approach, backed by evidence. The evidence shows us for example, only seven percent of accidents are as a result of faulty machinery, while 93 percent have other causes, including driver behaviour. We wouldn’t want to see an over-emphasis on compliance around machinery and gear when we know focusing more on human behaviour and driver distraction would yield us much greater improvements in reducing accidents and incidents on our roads.

The big opportunity in reviewing the ORS is to examine the data held by NZTA, to ensure the emphasis is on the right place. The industry must have confidence in the data and its interpretation and therefore, any subsequent actions taken by the regulator.

Another opportunity arising from this process could be a co-operative compliance model where an industry master code of practice is developed in line with an ORS replacement. This could be practice and process advice to guide operators in meeting standards and achieving best practice to improve safety outcomes. Independent assessment would be a vital component of such a structure, as would regulatory oversight, and any incentive offerings for operators going beyond compliance and being able to demonstrate an improvement in safety outcomes – both individually and industry-wide.

The road freight companies who are committed to safety for their staff and service for their customers could use best practice as a selling point for their business, as more customers seek assurance around the ethics of their business partners. We believe however a new system looks, regulator recognition of better practices through incentives should be key.

An ORS replacement is about the development of a shared lens between the road freight industry and the regulator. The aim of that lens is to improve safety and ensure that regulation is fair, reasonable and effective for all parties.

Where an operator doesn’t meet the standards, and subsequently compromises safety not only of their own staff, but of other road users, we support the regulator taking the appropriate action.

The goal is to end up with fewer accidents and incidents based on good operator performance, safer roads for everyone, and a regulatory environment that allows businesses to do what they do best.

We are committed to engaging in that process.

–  Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

** It’s important for operators to note, while the ORS has been suspended, NZTA continues to collect data on all TSL holders and is using its own internal assessment tools to judge compliance and take appropriate actions.

Finding road safety solutions should be more democratic

We are seeing democratic processes being eroded around the world, but we don’t want that to happen in New Zealand, do we?

This week, RTF has experienced a situation where government has chosen process over form on the very serious issue of public consultation about road safety and strategies to reduce the road toll. And we have been told, repeatedly, we must follow the process for submissions on the Road to Zero strategy.

This would be ok, but for the fact that the process is flawed and seems to ignore some basics of democracy and government engagement with the people.

There are three main flaws – internet accessibility; the ease with which the survey process they have opted for can be skewed; and the depth of the process that is allegedly looking for lasting solutions to a complex problem.

The process involves filling in a commercial online survey tool of the type you rate a hotel/airline/restaurant/shopping experience etc. To be fair, it does give you an option to attach a document. But you must fill in the online survey, or your submission is not valid – we were told by the Ministry of Transport, “we are not processing submissions outside of the tool”.

Commercial online survey tools are easily skewed by interest groups who get on line and fill out hundreds of surveys, so it is disappointing to see the government put so much reliance on them. We feel this issue is a lot more serious than a hotel/airline/restaurant/shopping experience where “95% of people rate our business as extremely excellent”. The insistence with which submitters are told to complete the survey suggests there are a bunch of nice infographics in mind to be littered across social media endorsing whatever the pre-determined policy direction is. It doesn’t feel very democratic.

Which brings us to accessibility, in a country that does not have fast internet access everywhere, and an online survey that would be daunting to some age and socio-economic demographic groups that may not have computer access.

What about the rural parents who have lost kids in road accidents, but don’t have great internet access? This survey approach excludes them.

If I want to hand-deliver a hand-written note, barefoot, having walked kilometres to do so, democracy says Wellington officials should duly note my salient points, not turn me away and tell me to fill in an online survey.

And to the third flaw – there is more to finding long-term, effective solutions than agree/disagree statements. Complicated problems such as the high number of deaths by accident on New Zealand roads, require more rigour than this.

Truck drivers who spend their working life on the road tell us the big issues impacting their safety are the condition of the roads themselves, and the behaviour and driving skills of other drivers.

We get the feeling these are not problems the government wants to know about when they can do a survey that tells them “95 percent of people want us to build more cycle ways”.

Public consultation is not a referendum and should never be treated as such. Its purpose is to provide the opportunity for anybody to have a say on an issue that is relevant to them, in the form they choose. It is a basic democratic right of any Kiwi to express the depth of their view, and it’s their right not to be herded into a tick-box exercise that merely meets the needs of those running the process.

Those in the central Wellington bubble need to get out more and speak to real people who are, at the end of the day, paying their salaries.

If you want to read our full submission it is available here.