ATA & TWU Interview on Driver Shortages

Transcript from ABC Radio (PM with Mark Colvin).


The Transport Workers' Union is warning of fatalities if foreign truck drivers unfamiliar with Australian road conditions are allowed to work temporarily in Australia.

The union is outraged over a proposal to add heavy vehicle drivers to the list of occupations eligible for 457 visas.

The Australian Trucking Association, which represents transport companies, says the move is necessary to fill driver shortages caused by the mining boom.

Business reporter Michael Janda.

MICHAEL JANDA: It's a familiar refrain in many industries: the mining boom is luring workers with massive pay packets leaving shortages behind.

The Australian Trucking Association's (ATA) chief executive, Stuart St Clair, says his industry has been hit hard by competition for heavy vehicle drivers.

STUART ST CLAIR: We found that there are some critical shortages in those areas that are particularly affected by resources industry. And we find that while there's no shortages as such within the cities there certainly is in some more regional areas across Australia.

MICHAEL JANDA: Mr St Clair says the worst shortages are in western New South Wales, northern Queensland and parts of Western Australia.

And the solution proposed by the association is to expand the temporary skilled migration program to include heavy vehicle drivers.

STUART ST CLAIR: Where they are unable to secure local drivers, we think it's important that they have some options to be able to assist in the finding some 457 temporary visa drivers from, say, the UK or the US.

MICHAEL JANDA: Now you've mentioned the UK and US, but is there any way to limit 457 applicants to particular regions? Wouldn't these applicants be from a whole variety of countries?

STUART ST CLAIR: Well they would be, but of course what is important is it's the operator who has the ability to want to put these people on. And I would think that operators would ensure that those people are properly and appropriately qualified, and ensure that they provide them with any of the extra skills that they need if the in fact do come to Australia.

MICHAEL JANDA: But the Transport Workers Union is suspicious of the trucking industry's motives.

Its acting national secretary, Michael Kaine, says transport companies simply don't want to pay higher wages to attract and retain drivers.

MICHAEL KAINE: It's just an easy way to take an easy path for an easy dollar for those that the ATA represents.

MICHAEL JANDA: Michael Kaine says Bureau of Statistics figures show there are plenty of people looking for work in the sector, but long hours, tight delivery deadlines and poor pay deter drivers from taking the jobs.

MICHAEL KAINE: The underemployment data at August 2013 shows that 34,500 people were looking for work in transport, postal and logistics. This is not an industry that is one that there's a shortage of people looking for work. This is an industry that needs to get those pressures lifted so there's an attraction and retention rate in the industry for drivers.

MICHAEL JANDA: That's a view shared by Frank Black, an owner-driver from Brisbane.

He's in the union, but also sits on the Trucking Association's general council.

FRANK BLACK: We've got a driver shortage in the industry. But in saying that, there's also a lot of skilled drivers here in Australia out of work.

MICHAEL JANDA: He says lots of drivers have dropped out of the industry and there aren't many young people coming in.

FRANK BLACK: I personally would know of a good half a dozen, and that's just me.

MICHAEL JANDA: Mr Black says truck drivers often face pressures to break laws to deliver goods on time, and drive enough kilometres to earn a decent income.

FRANK BLACK: A lot of them in incentive-based, like kilometre rate. So obviously the more kilometres they do the better, the more they get paid, you know. And the kilometre rate is very poor, which obviously entices them to work longer. Then you've got the big players and they will all turn around and put unrealistic timelines on it with the threat of penalties if you don't meet the timeframes.

Our own people don't even realise that they've got rights, that they don't need to do this, but they do it under duress. So how are these overseas people going to go?

MICHAEL JANDA: Michael Kaine says the result of bringing in foreign drivers unfamiliar with Australian roads and road rules, and under the same deadline pressures, will inevitably be more serious accidents.

MICHAEL KAINE: Bring in a pool of drivers not so familiar with Australian conditions, bring in a pool of drivers that haven't got the capacity to put up their hand to say that something's wrong - this is not a solution, it's actually going to make the problem worse. People are going to die.

MICHAEL JANDA: But the Trucking Association's Stuart St Clair says bringing in foreign truck drivers is no different to hiring overseas nurses on 457 visas.

FRANK BLACK: There is a set of laws that they actually have to conform with. And if operators are found to be operating or allowing drivers to operate outside of those, they are actually held liable, and be taken to court and be punished.

MICHAEL JANDA: That is, of course, if they get caught.

BRENDAN TREMBATH: Business reporter Michael Janda.


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