Life in the Cab

TWU November 09, 2012

I feel pressure] to meet deadlines and time slots. [Drivers have] got to get in and get loaded, [and] yet you have to wait around [for] up to 6 hours or more.

Retail Driver, Victoria


When I started with this company I missed all the delivery windows for the first two weeks. I soon realised that I had to follow what everyone else was doing and skip my breaks to meet the delivery window times, just as everyone else was doing. The boss said if we miss the delivery window we may as well kiss the contract goodbye, and we can only blame the driver for that. Meeting the delivery window is the driver’s only focus, I was told.

Retail Driver, Tasmania

The dispatcher says that every load you get is urgent and gives you a time it has to be delivered which leaves no fat in your driving time and you feel under the pump the whole week that you’re out driving. The job is exhausting enough without the added stress of wondering if you should stop, even though you’re starting to wander around the road a bit more while driving your truck. Management say that if you’re tired you stop, but the reality is that if you do stop you’re dragged over the coals for a late load. In my supposed rest times [I am] often refuelling, doing paperwork or keeping the truck clean. This is all done at lightening pace so that you’re back out there on time or else you’re questioned as to why. You see the other drivers on the road shooting past you and although you know it’s unsafe, you know they’re just trying to buy some time to get to their final destination and actually have some real down-time. [It’s a] testament to the drivers out there and their skill that more people are not killed.

Retail Driver, New South Wales


I am doing 24 hours in unpaid waiting times a week. With trailers being pre-loaded by (CLIENT NAME SUPPRESSED), I cannot afford to wait another hour or so unpaid while they unload and reload a set of trailers to get the legal weight. I carry overweight regularly and I don’t have a choice.

Driver, New South Wales

[Driver names have been supressed to maintain confidentiality.]


The reality of the road transport industry is that it is major industry clients that effectively set the rates of driver remuneration for both owner drivers and employee drivers. The cause of the safety crisis has been attributed to economic factors within the industry. Most significantly, it has been established beyond doubt that the root cause of unsafe remuneration systems and many of the unsafe practices on our roads is the power imbalance between transport clients and transport operators. The financial power and influence of clients in the transport industry makes their role in delivering safe outcomes essential.


Clients, particularly major retailers, exert control over not just prices paid for services, but also the way in which goods are delivered. While it has been established that unsafe rates and unsafe payment methods are the key contributors to the safety crisis, unpaid or underpaid waiting-time pressures for drivers and penalties for transport companies that do not meet strict scheduling requirements also have a heavy impact on safety.


Further, it is the high level of control exercised by clients over timing, destination and route that cause operators to bear costs that, ordinarily, are borne by customers. Economically powerful industry clients, like major retailers, have the commercial influence to determine the price of transport services and, in many circumstances, key conditions relating to the performance of transport work. Successive instances of contracting out, combined with unpaid waiting-time at client premises’, further exacerbate the harm caused by their excessive control of the transport market. […]


Transport operators compete for a limited amount of work, and price is the main determining factor in deciding whether they win or lose contracts, or subcontract out unprofitable work. Competition for work in the transport industry is so strong that there is an “acceptance of non-viable rates, excessive and illegal working hours, and stressed and chronically fatigued drivers”. Transport operators all face the same bundle of costs, costs such as vehicle maintenance, real estate, fuel, and wages. To be successful, companies competing for work from major clients cut their profit margins and then, when those margins become too thin, find other ways to reduce their costs. […]


When operators are denied a proper return, let alone a margin that exceeds the cost of capital, operators undercut each other, bid the price of transport down, and attempt to recoup the losses caused by clients from drivers by not paying for all work performed; and by paying them through incentive rates. As a consequence of employment too often being conditional on strict compliance with an operator’s direction and client deadlines, drivers are prone to drive while fatigued, speed, take drugs and skimp on maintenance.


Thus it is this high level of influence and control that is exercised by clients in the industry – rather than operators and drivers – that means that any attempt to remedy the safety crisis must have at its heart a focus on major clients. Previous attempts to improve industry safety have not addressed the role and influence of clients, the root cause of the safety crisis, and have meant that the systemic issues that exist have gone without remedy. For maximum impact and effect, it is necessary therefore to take a vertical approach - focusing on clients, subcontracting and specific supply chains – rather than a horizontal, issue-based approach. The TWU believes that an issues based approach which does not address the causes of unsafe practices and unfair work arrangements is likely to fail to deliver solutions which effectively address problems in the industry.


[This article was taken from a submission prepared by the Transport Workers Union to the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal. The submission highlighted the link between poor remuneration and working conditions and unsafe work practices in the industry, and argued for a targeting of major retail supermarket clients, in order to improve driver conditions. The full report, Improving Safety and Fairness for Road Transport and Distribution Workers, can be downloaded from the TWU website: TWU National Secretary, Tony Sheldon, participated in a roundtable on labour in the Australian logistics industry, held as part of the Sydney Transit Labour Platform.]