The decision of Greater Wellington Regional Council (GWRC) to re-tender bus contracts in the region, without protecting conditions of employment could harm not only the drivers and their families but public transport in the region if it is not reversed. Wellington has one of the highest levels of public transport use in the country, and the short sighted decision of GWRC would, if implemented, destroy this.
In 1989 then transport minister Richard Prebble changed the law so that councils were pushed to contract out urban bus services. In a short amount of time the Tramways Union in places like Christchurch and New Plymouth were destroyed. Drivers were forced to accept low wages and protections around things like hours of work were gone. Every few years regional councils re-tender bus contracts. Drivers are forced to reapply for their jobs, usually losing any service recognition and being forced to accept inferior conditions each time re-tendering occurs.
Driving a bus is not an easy job – I know – I did it for five years. You are driving a large vehicle through a busy urban environment often in peak traffic. You are responsible for the safety of the hundreds of passengers each week. Driving is not a 9-5 job, many shifts starting early in the morning or running very late into the night. Weekends are some of the busiest times for drivers, making it difficult to attend kids sports games or spend time with friends or families. Most drivers have horror stories of when someone walked out in front of their bus without looking, or were verbally or physically assaulted on the job. As a result when conditions of employment are reduced as a result of re-tendering, experienced drivers don’t stick around.
Wellington has for many years been protected from this fate. The Wellington Tramways Union have managed to hold onto pre-1989 employment conditions due to two factors. The first was that the Trolley buses created a natural monopoly, making it very difficult for competitors to move in. The second is that in Wellington City all but one of the bus drivers belongs to the union. The result has been that Wellington has a far lower turnover of drivers than in other centres. In Wellington driving a bus has remained a viable career option where if you are prepared to put in the hours you can earn a decent wage. For the public this has resulted in a far more reliable service, thus patronage has remained high. By contrast in cities like Christchurch even pre-earthquake or Dunedin passenger numbers have declined significantly since the early 1990s, and regular re-tendering of work has been a major factor.
At a meeting I attended with former NZ Bus CEO Bruce Emson in 2010, Bruce commented that bus contract tenders the only way companies could provide a lower cost service was to either cut drivers wages or buy cheaper buses and compromise service reliability and potentially public safety. The 14 million dollar savings over 10 years that GWRC say they will make by re-tendering, will only come by doing those two things.
This issue isn’t unique to public transport. When I was PSA Organiser for Wellington City Council we would often hear stories of contracts being awarded to companies who put in the lowest bid. After a major storm in 2013 a tree fell down in Seatoun. In earlier years when the council had a works unit, council staff would have driven out in a truck and removed the tree. By 2013 this service had been outsourced to the company who had put in the lowest tender. This company did not have all the equipment or labour to carry out the work in a timely manner. By paying minimum wages, this company was unable to retain former council staff who had experience in these role. As a result damage from the storm took considerably longer to clean up than it should have.
The Local Government Act needs to be amended so that councils are obliged to transfer all workers over and to protect terms and conditions of employment. Specifically if a Collective Agreement is in place, then transferring all union members over on this document should be a condition of any successful tender.
But GWRC don’t need to wait for central government to impose this on them. Councils have the legal power to make protection of employment and employment conditions part of the contract. GWRC did this in 2016 when the company that runs Wellington’s rail network changed. The Thank You Driver campaign is calling on our elected regional councillors to listen to the public and protect drivers’ employment and employment conditions. Wellington Mayor Justin Lester, Labour Leader Andrew Little and other leaders are getting on board. GWRC still have time to do the right thing, join the campaign to make sure that they do.
You can sign in support of Wellington bus drivers at www.together.org.nz/thankyou-driver
~ Nick Kelly*
*Nick Kelly is part of the Thank You Driver campaign. Nick was President of the Wellington Tramways Union from 2008 to 2012. He was also PSA’s Local Government National Organiser 2013 to 2015, and is now a director at Piko Consulting.