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Wednesday, 3 October 1984
Page: 1072


Senator JACK EVANS(10.07) —by leave-I move:

That the Bill be now read a second time.

I seek leave to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows-

Background

This Government has abandoned the owner-drivers in the road freight transport industry. Earlier this year I approached the Minister for Transport (Mr Peter Morris) seeking government action to relieve the plight of owner-drivers and advising the Minister that, in the absence of government action, the Australian Democrats would act to preserve the owner-drivers' lives and livelihoods. The Minister advised me that the Government would take no action until the matter had been considered by the national road freight industry inquiry. In good faith , the Australian Democrats and the owner-drivers waited for the inquiry report. That report has now been presented and the problems facing owner-drivers have not been addressed. The report reveals that the Minister did not refer any matter to the inquiry for consideration! The inquiry considered only the terms which the Government had given it and, in the absence of direction by the Minister, nothing else. In light of the Minister's prevarication, the Australian Democrats have no alternative but to act. We are merely sorry that this Bill was not introduced earlier.

The Bill

This Bill seeks to establish tribunals which will enable legally binding determinations to be made with respect to safety, remuneration and other conditions relating to various classes of owner-drivers. It also provides a legal framework upon which owner-drivers can base industrial agreements with their corporate bailors or principal contractors. It does so by recognising and utilising organisations which are representative of certain classes of carriers and contractors. The Bill acknowledges the realities of industrial life: That some owner-drivers are pro-union while others are irrevocably anti-union. The Bill, therefore, does not exclude unions from representing carriers under certain classes of contracts. But a representative organisation does not have to be a trade union. In reality, at any one time, there will probably be at least two representative bodies representing carriers in a class of contracts: A union body and a non-union body. Registration, however, is contingent upon the organisation being an effective representative of its members.

The Australian Democrats see no reason in perpetuating the 'us versus them' mentality that has existed in the past. Unions and non-union bodies representing contractors are not necessarily incompatible within an industrial relations system. Consequently, this Bill has not been designed for the exclusive use of either group. It has been designed to stop the death and exploitation of owner- drivers.

This century has seen a revolution in the rights and conditions which apply to workers. Employers, governments and society have recognised that they have responsibilities towards workers. Consequently, industrial practice and the legal system has recognised the need for responsible standards relating to health, safety, remuneration and other conditions. However, contractors and sub- contractors have existed outside of this revolution. They have received some flow-on benefits enjoyed by employees. But, in the main, their dual employer- employee status has excluded them from the mainstream of accepted employee standards as a right. Contractors, as distinct from employees, enjoy freedoms and advantages in regard to their conditions of work. Similarly, those contracting to contractors enjoy flexibilities and advantages not experienced by employers or employees. This flexibility and freedom is necessary and desirable. Contracting is a two-edged sword which has rewards which compensate for the disadvantages to the parties involved. It is a practice which is desired by the participating parties and which is an essential component of modern society.

In the road transport industry, however, the two-edged sword has turned into a single edged weapon against the sub-contracting owner-drivers. The contract system has been exploited by the advent of certain contractors who are exploiting their sub-contractors. The powerful companies of the road freight industry have found a vulnerable minority: The owner-driver. While big companies may cream substantial profits off the top of the industry, the small owner- driver is frequently forced to drive dangerously long hours and for rates which produce small or non-existent profits for the person who actually does the work. The small owner-driver places his own life at risk but, because of massive competition, he is now at the centre of a profit squeeze with increasing operating costs and low rates of payment from his principal contractors.

In such a situation in another industry, the sub-contractor would go elsewhere for business. Owner-drivers are not so lucky. To enter the business they have to make large financial commitments and they are reliant upon a continual stream of work to enable them to maintain their payments on their investment. In addition, they are often bound to their principal contractors in ways which would make market mobility almost impossible. At almost every turn, big companies have small owner-drivers over a barrel.

While small owner-drivers are a diverse and heterogeneous group which has difficulty in speaking with a single voice or in finding sympathetic ears, the large companies have found a tacit friend: Big government. While governments have acted to protect exploited employees-and employers-owner-drivers have been dumped into the 'too hard' basket. The answer of big government is to investigate and review and to inquire and to research and to refer to committees , and ultimately, to continue to turn a blind eye.

The plight of owner-drivers is not new. It existed under the last Liberal- National Party coalition government and it continues to exist under the present Australian Labor Party Government. The big political parties have refused to stop the exploitation that occurs. They have refused to stop the deaths that occur as a result of the unrealistic deadlines and rates set by transport contractors.

This Bill seeks to break the big company-big government-big political party alliance. It seeks to stop the exploitation of owner-drivers. The Australian Democrats have the courage to challenge the cosy alliance which exists. We cannot stand by idly, as have the other political parties, as owner-drivers are killed and exploited. This Bill will not satisfy all parties completely-no Bill will achieve that-however it is a practical means by which the present injustice may be corrected.

The Australian Democrats are introducing this Bill in the expectation that senators and members, owner-drivers, transport companies, unions and other interested groups will consider it with an understanding that constructive comment will be welcomed by me. I commend the Bill to the Senate.

Debate (on motion by Senator Grimes) adjourned.