- by Anna Pha
- The Guardian
- Issue #1977
Seven thousand Toll drivers are in a battle to save their jobs and working conditions. After a long campaign, they had no option but to take national strike action. They went out on Friday 28th August for twenty-four hours and the possibility of further action remains.
Toll is attempting to create a two-tier workforce with all new employees on lower wages and in insecure employment. It would then squeeze out its permanent, higher paid employees in a race to the bottom.
Toll was still refusing to guarantee job security at the time of writing, but negotiations with the TWU were continuing. The drivers deliver products for large corporations like Amazon, Dan Murphy’s, K-Mart, and Bunnings.
An overwhelming ninety-four percent of voting Transport Workers’ Union (TWU) members supported the action in a ballot for “protected action” under the Fair Work Act. Toll refuses to guarantee that future work will be allocated to full-time employees ahead of lower paid, outside labour-hire. It is also trying to impose fixed term contracts of three months to two years for all new workers. These workers would be on lower wages and inferior working conditions, without the certainty of ongoing employment.
The union said the striking drivers received support from members of the public, fellow unionists, and Members of Parliament from around the country. Messages of support can be found on Twitter at #TruckieSolidarity.
The two-tier system would have the impact of dividing the workforce industrially, with the future employment prospects of labour-hire and contract workers dependent on their submissiveness and compliance. The ability of the union to organise, bargain, or take industrial action would be weakened. It would be a race to the bottom.
FORCED TO TAKE ACTION
“Toll workers were forced to take the last resort option to go on strike last week because their jobs are being smashed. To do nothing would be to wait like sitting ducks for the jobs they’ve skilfully done for decades to be given away to the lowest common denominator. If workers had accepted this, their jobs could have been contracted out moments after signing on the dotted line,” TWU National Secretary Michael Kaine told the Guardian.
“Toll workers need guarantees that they won’t be sliced and diced Qantas-style and replaced by a cut-price, underemployed workforce. They didn’t want to go on strike, especially during a pandemic, but they were forced to protect their jobs.”
Toll is also demanding that overtime entitlements for part-time workers who work additional hours up to a total of thirty-eight be scrapped. This is indicative of what lies ahead. At present they are entitled to penalty rates if they work additional hours. The TWU refuses to accept this attack on penalty rates, which would enable the company to classify workers as part-time, but in practice work them full-time without their penalty rate entitlements.
“UBER FOR PARCELS”
Since the entry of Amazon, the world’s largest online retailer, into the Australian market in 2020, competition has been ruthless as it builds up its own logistics company so as to avoid using other companies such as Toll. The lack of regulation in the industry has facilitated Amazon’s entry, with its own company, AmazonFlex, undercutting other delivery companies using a highly exploitative method of employment that makes Uber look like an amateur.
Amazon’s profits have boomed during the pandemic, rising by a whopping 224 per cent to US$8 billion (A$11 billion) in just the last quarter! But there appear to be no limits to its greed and how far it will go in squeezing workers for every extra dollar while driving competitors to the wall.
AmazonFlex employs drivers using a gig economy model, which ABC Investigations recently exposed. The program interviewed Alex Ayliff and Ryan McBain – two Flex drivers.
Ayliff reported on the precarious nature of his work, with his livelihood depending on a smartphone app telling him when to show up for work to collect parcels for delivery. “I could wake up tomorrow with an email saying that my agreement with AmazonFlex has been terminated,” he told the ABC.
Known by some drivers as “Uber for parcels”, workers never know when their next four-hour block will be, whether they will receive a violation warning or be cut off the app – as in sacked. For some drivers Flex is their only source of income.
They use their own vehicles, although AmazonFlex dictates the type of vehicles they must use, the work to be done, and like Uber, the company claims the drivers are contractors and not employees. Hence, they are not paid sick or annual leave, must pay their own superannuation contributions, provide their own vehicle, and cover running costs including car maintenance, fuel, parking costs, and insurance.
They are expected to deliver all their allocated parcels within a fixed number of hours, usually between three and four. If that proves impossible, they are left with a choice: work additional, unpaid time to finish the round or return the undelivered goods and receive a warning. Warnings are followed by the sack after a certain unspecified (to drivers) number.
At times it can be impossible to finish within the four hours such as when the traffic is heavy or because of the nature of the drop-off points. Safety becomes an issue when drivers are racing against the clock.
It is a reign of fear, fear of rejecting parcels that won’t fit in a car without blocking the driver’s vision, fear of not meeting the specified deadline, fear to speak up.
SACKED BY A COMPUTER
McBain’s experience is one that all drivers fear. He received an email saying, “Due to violation(s) of the Amazon Flex Independent Contractor Terms of Service […]. You are no longer eligible to participate in the Amazon Flex Platform.”
He told the ABC that it made him feel as though he was being fired by a robot. “not once did I speak to a human,” he said.
The unregulated model harks back to the days of the master-servant relationship, a model that is creeping into more and more industries and bypasses the industrial relations system and statutory rights of workers. The model wipes the gains of more than a hundred years of struggle by trade unions and workers. Amazon makes arbitrary decisions, with no accountability. Workers have no rights. When expenses are taken into consideration, their income is usually below the minimum wage.
AmazonFlex with its appalling working conditions and low wages is driving a race to the bottom.
DEREGULATION A KILLER
Other transport companies are feeling the competitive pressure from Amazon. Toll is not the only one.
“While we implore Toll to fix this, none of it would be happening if the federal government had the right regulation in place to ensure transport supply chains are adequately funded by wealthy retailers, manufacturers and oil companies at the top,” TWU NSW/Queensland Secretary and lead Toll negotiator Richard Olsen said.
Add to this the competition from Amazon, the transport companies negotiating with the union and treating their workforce as employees are being squeezed in both directions. The unregulated entry of Amazon with its gig-economy model was facilitated by the Coalition government who had previously abolished the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal that regulated the sector.
In the five years since then, 205 truck drivers and almost 1000 people total have been killed in truck crashes. At present it is running at around one driver a week, making it one of the deadliest occupations along with work in the building and construction industry.
A Senate inquiry into the industry tabled a report on 26th August making ten strong recommendations for reregulation of land transport. The first of these was for the government to establish and empower “an independent body that will, in consultation with industry, set universal and binding standards (including binding standards with respect to pay).”
This body will “ensure the safe performance of work and eliminate unsafe economic and contracting practice [and] apply to all road transport supply chain participants, including transport operators, online/on demand operations, and workers (regardless of their employment or work status), and throughout supply chains.”
The body will also act as a dispute resolution body with general powers to resolve disputes.
The Senate committee importantly recommends “providing the capacity for registered industrial organisations, such as trade unions and employer organisations, to carry out inspections and enforcement through transport supply chains.”
The TWU is calling on the government to implement the recommendations of the Senate Committee.
“The deadly recipe of wage theft, control and threat of the sack has been laid bare at AmazonFlex. Worker Alex Ayliff using AmazonFlex as his only source of income was left with under $18,000 in annual earnings after expenses. Workers like Ryan McBain are dismissed by a bot with no warning, no explanation and no right to challenge the sacking,” Kayne said.
The TWU told the Guardian that further action ballots are currently being held across four other major transport operators – FedEx, StarTrack, Linfox and Bevchain – over similar attacks on job security. There are now more than 15,000 truck drivers heading towards industrial action to protect their job security, wages, and working conditions.
“It is an abomination that billionaire retailers like Amazon are smashing profit records while ripping off transport supply chains and crushing the jobs of the truck drivers who’ve risked the health of their families to deliver parcels and keep shelves stocked,” Kaine said.
The Communist Party of Australia expresses its solidarity with the Toll and other truck drivers affected by the pressure on their job security and conditions.