Greater Wellington Regional Council is harming public transport

Written By: - Date published: 4:12 pm, June 18th, 2017 - 19 comments
Categories: privatisation, wages, workers' rights - Tags: , ,

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

~ 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.

19 comments on “Greater Wellington Regional Council is harming public transport”

  1. Bill 1

    So would I be right to assume that the trolley bus services have been undermined in some way, and that has opened the door to tendering?

    I talk to the bus drivers down this way. They’re basically on minimum wage, are often subjected to quite horrendous split shifts, and basically don’t do well. The union is almost non-existent and two things happen. One is that drivers see no point in belonging to a weak union, and those that do seem to wind up with those really bad split shifts.

    Whatever the law Prebble passed in ’89, it’s time to reverse it: to get away from liberalism’s persistent stercoraceous vomiting. Public transport should be publicly owned and anyway, private companies are not going to be capable of stepping up to the mark re AGW and necessary changes to public transport.

    • tc 1.1

      Isn’t it also being undermined by its power infrastructure not being kept up with ?

      Thought Sue kedgley was also onto this as I saw her being interviewed about it in Courtney place during my lunch break week before last.

  2. RedLogix 2

    Two letters: HR

  3. Draco T Bastard 3

    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.

    If that is what it would do then that is what it’s designed to do.

    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.

    All public service need to be brought back in-house and done by the government be it local or central. It’s the only way to get good, reliable service that doesn’t bankrupt the workers who do the job or the council.

  4. infused 4

    Good to see you still cranking on Nick.

  5. TraderX 5

    Serious question,GWRC is stacked with labour/greens, elected on a pro public transport, low carbon, high wage agenda. Then what comes out often is opposite. Why is that?

    • Wainwright 5.1

      What’s the surprise? Labour and the Greens both think Fiscal Responsibility is the most important thing in the world, promising surpluses at any cost, look to them doing much the same stuff if they get into power. Gotta balance the books!

    • dukeofurl 5.2

      The GWRC members dont choose the tender winner. The legislation mandates that they tender and the lowest tender wins- the whole process is done by the staff.

  6. greywarshark 6

    How can intelligent principled councillors do this? It is just inept kow-towing to neo lib dogma and poor economics in real time.

    Wainwright I don’t know why you are coming to this blog to drivel all over us. Did Kiwiblog turf you out.

    • dukeofurl 6.1

      read the story again . The bit where it says Prebble changed the legislation to create a process.

      Elected members have no say on how its done or who gets the tender.

      The government pays the smallest share of the cost of public transport- as a subsidy, but decides the whole process.

  7. AsleepWhileWalking 7

    Wellington has a section in it known as the “bowling alley”, so called because of buses hitting pedestrians. Although there shouldn’t be an increase in accidents because of pay cuts I believe there will be as experienced drivers are replaced with cheaper ones.

    A disaster waiting to happen.

  8. Saint Vincent 8

    You’re correct that the state is not managing the provision of the service as well as it could, but the reality is that this is a dying service

    It will be replaced by automated battery powered vehicles within ten years. Like Uber, sans drivers.

  9. Chris Stuart 9

    Wellington buses need to be regarded as essential social services and as such be brought under the remit of government.

    When the crap hits the fan and the weather turns to crap, Wellingtonians turn to buses to get them to work.

    Having drivers that have well paid and highly valued jobs will do nothing but enhance the reputation as Wellington being the Best Little City in the world.

    Lets not tarnish that reputation by trying to shave a few dollars of the bottom line.

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