Truckies will be targeted by a new federal body that will set minimum standards for owner-drivers under proposed changes to the nation’s workplace laws.
Tabled by Workplace Relations Minister Tony Burke as part of an omnibus bill on Monday, the changes will establish an ‘Expert Panel’ for the road transport industry within Australia’s industrial umpire, the Fair Work Commission, to set minimum standards, including pay rates and conditions for truck drivers.
The opposition and employer groups immediately branded the changes as a means to revive the ill-fated Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal (RSRT) established by the Gillard government in 2012.
The RSRT came under fire after it issued a controversial order establishing a national minimum pay rate and unpaid leave for drivers.
Owner-drivers protested that its minimum rates undercut their viability, leading to the eventual abolition of the RSRT in 2016.
But Mr Burke said the proposed reforms were a result of consultation with industry groups and unions, which both backed the government’s concerns.
“We’re a government that brings people together and that’s what we’ve done with these important road transport reforms,” Mr Burke said.
“There is now a broad consensus that we need minimum standards in this sector to protect lives and ensure a sustainable and viable trucking industry.”
A new ‘road transport advisory group’ will be established to guide the Fair Work Commission. Its membership will include owner-driver representatives and union groups.
The Transport Workers Union, which has long campaigned for enforceable minimum standards in the transport sector, and opposed the RSRT’s abolition, welcomed the announcement.
“Transport has never been more united in backing this reform to reverse the crisis in our industry,” TWU secretary Michael Kaine said.
“The tabling of lifesaving transport reform in federal parliament is a significant moment for our industry. It brings hope that the days of deadly and unsustainable commercial pressures are numbered.
“This legislation is urgent. Already this year, 156 people have been killed in truck crashes – roughly five deaths a week – and 39 of those were truck drivers.”
In the government’s media release announcing the reforms, NatRoad chief executive Warren Clark, whose organisation represents road transport businesses, also supported the changes.
“We can’t keep losing hundreds of businesses annually under the tough economic conditions that have permeated the industry for years,” Mr Clark said.
“This reform will give operators the confidence of fair contract terms to invest in equipment, recruit drivers, and get on with the job safely and sustainably.”
It’s understood, however, that Mr Clark had not seen the details of the legislation before providing comment.
But some business groups are fiercely opposed to the reforms with Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive Andrew McKellar arguing the changes would translate to higher prices for consumers at the supermarket checkout.
“The government is effectively reviving the failed Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal. Multiple independent reviews found this failure to have cost the lives and livelihoods of hardworking owner-drivers,” Mr McKellar said.
“This new body within the Fair Work Commission will have the same profound impact on the road transport industry.
“Australians will ultimately feel the pinch at the supermarket checkout.”
Another point of contention is new regulatory powers the minister will have over road transport supply chain participants.
Under the proposed changes, the minister will be able to introduce new regulations if they are satisfied they are to promote “equitable workplace” outcomes, a “safe, sustainable and viable road transport industry”, “sustainable competition” or “fairness”.
Also included in the bill tabled by Mr Burke are proposals to increase regulation in the gig economy, clamp down on labour hire, an easier pathway for casual workers to convert to permanent roles, and increased penalties for wage underpayments.
The changes will be debated in the House for four weeks before progressing to the Senate later this year.