Sunday, October 11, 2009

"Bully-boy tactics"

Matt McCarten: Bus lockout a cynical move by bosses
Sunday Oct 11, 2009 NZ Herald

Aren't the ads by Auckland's private bus companies patronising?

They pay their advertising agencies to air expensive ads which inform us they have locked out their workers and taken buses off the road, because they apparently care about the safety of their passengers.

The truth is, it's a bully-boy tactic used by bus driver bosses to enforce their will on their employees.

It is breathtakingly cynical to use 80,000 commuters as a tool to deliberately whip up the emotions of frustrated passengers to intimidate bus drivers into settling their employment contract on the owners' terms.

The employers are clumsily trying to pretend to us that they have offered their drivers a generous 10 per cent wage increase. The fine print is that the offer is based on a three-year deal, with an approximate yearly increase of 3 per cent.

Many of us might have been persuaded this was a reasonable offer until we learned these drivers are paid between $14 and $17 an hour, with almost no other benefits.

Almost all drivers are required to work a split shift.

This means they are away from home from early in the morning until late in the evening, with several hours of unpaid time in the middle of the day.

If they go home during this time, they must travel from home to work and back twice in one day. Most of them have to wait in their smoko rooms until they are required to restart their shift. These drivers are away from home for at least 14 hours a day for eight hours' pay.

A show of hands at meetings reveals that a majority of these bus drivers receive Family Support or an accommodation allowance to supplement their wages. These low wages are paid by bus owners who receive $88 million of direct subsidies from taxpayers.

That means the taxpayer forks out millions of dollars so the bus owners can make a profit, then the taxpayer forks out millions more directly to the workers because the bus owners don't pay them a living wage.

Yet given the recent strengthening of the New Zealand dollar and the declining cost of diesel, the profits made by these bus companies are huge.

The drivers have been negotiating for a new employment contract for five months. The workers rightly believe their employers making money should pay them a living wage so they can raise their families with some dignity.

The fact that drivers can be paid only $1.50 an hour more than a 16-year-old flipping hamburgers is a disgrace.

The drivers have done everything that they can to avoid inconvenience to the passengers. They have not taken strike action but instead, to send a message to their employers, decided that they would merely follow the employers' safety rules.

I thought employees were required to follow company policy. But it seems that, while the company rules state that drivers are not allowed to drive any bus that is unsafe or without emergency radios, they are frequently pressured to do so.

As a result, if there is an assault on the bus, drivers have no emergency radio to call for help. In addition, they invariably have to exceed the speed limit to maintain travel schedules.

We have an absurd Alice in Wonderland situation where bus owners claim that as a safety concern they have locked out their workers from their jobs - and passengers off the buses - because drivers have said they will follow company policy.

Surely there must be legal penalties against employers who penalise workers for abiding by their company's safety rules?

But then we know that these bus owners don't care about the taxpayer who gives them millions of free dollars, nor their workers, nor the travelling public.

It is about greed and so they will do whatever they like to keep profiting off the public.

Wouldn't it be great if the transport policy for the new Supercity included an integrated, publicly-owned transport system, free of these unethical profiteers who suck on the public teat?

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