Transport’s dirty little secret: The truckers breaking the law just to survive

Article by | Business Editor, the Spin Off

Drivers peeing into a bottle because they can’t afford toilet stops and migrant workers sleeping in depots: The trucking industry is in a race to the bottom, a new study says.

It took AUT researcher Dr Clare Tedestedt George several days to recover from her 15-hour interview with a truck driver.

The conversation lasted that long because she was riding with him as he did his overnight run delivering bread to supermarkets, and had no way of leaving. “So I stayed with him for the whole route. And it was excellent, because I heard everything.”

Aside from getting out of the truck to load and unload 100kg pallets of bread the driver did not stop from 10.30pm, when George met him at the truck depot, until 9.30 the next morning – not to eat or drink, nor go to the bathroom. “They don’t drink anything because they don’t have time to stop and go to the toilet,” she says.

“I was feeling really nauseous and unwell, because I can’t go that long without water and without stopping.”

When the driver finally finished at 2pm he was going home to complete paperwork and prepare to do it all again that night.

The shift left George exhausted and ill from the vibration of the truck, yet this was a typical day in an industry where drivers regularly work 70 to 90-hour weeks.

George’s recently completed PhD thesis on the occupational safety, health and well-being of truck drivers paints a grim picture of a sector in a race for the bottom. Despite New Zealand’s heavy reliance on road freight and the Road Transport Forum’s estimate that we are short 4000 skilled drivers, the industry is moving inexorably towards using contract owner-drivers competing for low hourly pay. In a parallel trend, many believe an exploited migrant workforce is further driving down rates.

George interviewed 45 industry participants, including 20 drivers. They told her that speeding to keep up with tight schedules, driving longer than their legal limit and falsifying log books are standard practice, with drivers often pressured to break the law to get the job done. Surviving on roadside ‘pie and a can’ deals and peeing into a bottle because they can’t afford to stop takes a heavy toll on their health, while owner-drivers are burdened with crushing debt and contract arrangements that bind them as de facto employees without any of the benefits.

Meanwhile the numbers of deaths and injuries from crashes involving heavy vehicles remain stubbornly high. After reaching a low of 47 fatalities and 744 people injured in 2013 the statistics are on the rise again, with 75 deaths and 850 injury victims in 2016.

AUT trucking researcher Dr Clare Tedestedt George. (Photo: AUT)

George quotes the drivers throughout her thesis. “I’ve been working all night,” one says. “Currently 25 and a half hours and counting with only 15 to 20 minutes sleep. By the time I knock off today and get to bed, it will be the second time this week going 30-plus hours with next to no sleep.”

She heard about owner-drivers at risk of losing everything. “We picked him up on the side of the road; he was on the verge of committing suicide, half a million dollars in debt, his parent’s property on the line. Four months with (an unidentified company) where he is instructed to break the law twice, refuses twice and gets terminated,” an industry participant told her.

At least two prominent transport companies are known for housing migrant workers behind high fences and locked gates, she learned. “Mostly they are Fijian Indians and they are given accommodation on the yards, though they pay rent. They keep them for two years and nine months and then send them back,” one driver said.

George’s study is the first to look at the structural factors underlying these poor practices. One of the challenges is that the trucking industry crosses disciplines from employment relations to road safety, and no one agency oversees the complex sector, she says.

“Why are truck drivers so fatigued, why are they speeding?” she asks. “No logical person would drive when they’re that exhausted, so what’s the decision-making process behind these dangerous acts?”

What she found was a highly competitive industry where tight margins and low pay place intense time pressure on drivers. Managers who attempt to prioritise health and safety are conflicted by the need to ensure the survival of the firm. While it’s difficult to get accurate figures, George says anecdotally the indication is that 70 per cent of the sector are now owner-drivers who do what they can to stay afloat. On top of it all bad practices are tolerated, with a prevailing attitude that it’s part of the job and those who can’t stand the heat should get out of the cab.

The conundrum is, if it’s so competitive why is there a driver shortage? The industry avoids paying drivers more by bringing in migrant workers, her informants said.

“You get migrants that are coming from countries where the pay rates are really low so to work for $18 an hour is like hitting the jackpot for them and of course they will work for as many hours as they can,” one interviewee said.

The industry was described as “cutthroat”. “The current thing among the corporates is they’ll say to the existing contract (driver), ‘we expect you to take 10 to 20 per cent off it or we’ll put it out to tender,” another said.

Despite a recent crackdown on rogue trucking firms announced by the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA), lack of enforcement is a significant problem, George says. Some drivers have one log book to record their actual driving hours, which is what they’re paid on, and a second to show law enforcement agencies. The chances of getting caught out are “practically zero”, interviewees told her.

They described managers regularly asking drivers to break the law in order to get the job done. “I was forced to take a load and was then caught by the cops for being overweight. I was fined $1100 and had to pay it myself because ultimately it was my responsibility,” one owner-driver said.

There is little difference between being a contractor and an employee, with owner-drivers even having to paint their trucks at their own expense in the colours of the company they’re working for, George says.

There were cameras in the cab of her 15-hour driver’s truck and his movements were monitored. “Just prior to us meeting the company had analysed his GPS data and realised that he’d made the route more efficient, and they rewrote his cost model based on this new information.

“As a contractor you would think he would have the ability to negotiate… But there was no way he could say no to this.”

Peter Gallagher runs Prodrive, New Zealand’s only advocacy body for contract drivers. Clare George’s research is right on point, he says. “It’s the dirty little secret of the New Zealand transport game.”

He is representing half a dozen drivers right now who are enduring the conditions she describes, he says. One contractor who operates four vehicles in Wellington had a driver write him a resignation note on the back of a bread packet after a month of  doing 16-hour days, and he’s on the verge of losing another. The contractor himself is working up to 20 hours a day. “This is what they have to do… to not run the risk of termination, because they are in what can only be called contracts for servitude.”

Migrant workers are not necessarily willing to work for lower rates, but they aren’t familiar with New Zealand law and believe the rosy picture that’s put to them, he says. In the last 10 years he’s brought over 50 cases against companies with the assistance of a senior partner at law firm Simpson Grierson. Nothing will change until the regulators ensure adequate protections for people now known as ‘dependent contractors’, Gallagher says.

Nick Leggett, chief executive of the Road Transport Forum which represents road freight operators, says there were “elements of surprise” in George’s research. “We’re obviously going to be keen to look at some of the detail.”

Safety and compliance have always been paramount for the forum, he says.

“If you look at the enforcement issues that NZTA are currently grappling with you’d have to say there isn’t uniform enforcement across different aspects of the industry. Probably we are in for a period of catch up there.”

Coming technologies such as the digitisation of log books will help, he says.

George spent months establishing a rapport with the drivers she interviewed for her thesis. “Their trucks are like their homes, I had to do a lot of groundwork before being let into their space,” she says.

Despite striving to maintain academic neutrality some of the interviews brought her to tears.

On one occasion she was due to talk to a 54-year-old driver when his wife turned up. He had lost consciousness behind the wheel and died just before the interview. “She acknowledged the fact his lifestyle meant he wasn’t able to eat properly, he never got enough exercise. She’s very angry about it.

“It just breaks your heart.”

Transport’s Dirty Little Secrets: The truckers breaking the law just to survive
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