Truckers, public safety and the government's duty of care

Submitted by carolyn on Fri, 31/07/2015 - 17:44

3 August 2015

By Andrew Moretta, World of Work PhD student, Liverpool University

Truck drivers are highly skilled professionals. A moment’s inattention when driving a 26 ton vehicle can have catastrophic consequences. Despite this, general haulage drivers are very badly paid – many are on the minimum wage and many more are required to work extraordinarily long hours. Twelve to fifteen hour days, five to six days a week are the norm in a great many firms.

The workers in this vital industry have the capacity to deliver the negotiating punch of the railwaymen. The Government, conscious of the latent collective power of this sleeping giant have, in their Trade Union Bill, given themselves the option of defining the industry as an ‘important public service’. As such, strike action ballots would require a majority of at least 40% of a minimum of 50% of those entitled to vote before conferring the protection of the statutory immunities.

The haulage companies are well aware of the crucial importance of the industry to the economy and have no qualms about attempting to squeeze what they can out of the tax payer:



“British supermarkets will face food shortages unless George Osbourne pours £150 million into lorry driver training in next week’s budget experts have warned.”

Daily Telegraph 14 March 2015

The experts in question were the Road Haulage Association – the leading employers’ organisation in the transport sector. Chief Executive, Richard Burnett, was reported as saying that the industry ‘desperately’ needs the money:

“We need George Osbourne to dig deep and find a way through this” he said. ”The problem isn’t going to go away…We’ve no young people coming up through into the industry.”

According to the RHA, the £28 billion pound a year industry is short of 45,000 drivers.

No shortage of skills – just low on pay and training

There are around 1.5 million people in the UK with HGV licences. There is no shortage of qualified drivers. Very likely 45,000 of these licence holders would be tempted back into the industry if the haulage companies were to offer them adequate wages and conditions – but they don’t want to. They don’t want to pay to put new recruits through the HGV test either, and a great many haulage companies refuse to pay for any staff training whatsoever.

The ‘certificate of professional competence’, a qualification which became mandatory for all HGV drivers in September 2014, has evidently cost the industry some 10,000 to 20,000 drivers. At the time The Daily Mail reported Tory MP Andrew Bridgen, a ‘qualified road haulage manager,’ as claiming that, rather than undertaking the CPC many drivers “decided to retire early or quit the industry instead.”

What Bridgen, the RHA and other cheer leaders for the industry fail to mention about this exodus is that almost all of those drivers resigned because they had been told they had to pay for the CPC themselves – some £250 to £400 – and take five days holiday to attend the course.

Employers who paid to put their drivers through the CPC retained their drivers. No one fails the CPC. No one resigned because they couldn’t face the prospect of five days of late starts and early finishes, and a few hours sat in a classroom.

Safety on our roads – Government’s duty of care

The hauliers were spoilt by New Labour, and it appears they have high hopes that the new Tory administration will wish to cosset them as well. The EU Road Transport Working Time Directive of 2002 had been intended to impose an average 48 hour working week on the industry, with an absolute cap of 60 hours of work in any one week. These measures were aimed at ensuring “the safety of transport and the health and safety of the persons involved” by improving “working conditions and road safety.”

It was thought that compliance with the directive would require the industry to recruit another 13,000 drivers. It was anticipated that 48 hour, 12 hour days, four on four off rolling weeks and salaries would see an end to the worse excesses of the industry.

Instead, the Government connived with the hauliers to incorporate the concept of ‘periods of availability’(POA) in the regulations that were supposed to implement the directive into domestic law. Drivers are instructed to record a POA at any suitable opportunity – while waiting to be unloaded, for example.

During a POA the driver, although paid, not on a work break, and very likely in charge of many hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of vehicle and freight, is deemed not to be working. POAs bring average working hours crashing down. Consequently it is still possible – and far from unusual – for a driver to put in an 82 hour working week.

Many haulage firms don’t even bother feigning compliance, and don’t trouble with POAs and 48 hour averages. The 2005 Regulations do not – unlike the 1998 Working Time Regulations – permit drivers to bring complaints of breaches before an employment tribunal, and making doubly sure that sleeping dogs are left well alone, the Driving and Vehicle Standards Agency appear to not bother enforcing the regulations.

Strike action to protect safe terms and conditions of work

Those in the general haulage sector were underpaid and overworked in comparison with their more specialist colleagues even in the days when the Road Haulage Wages Board set rates of pay, and have only rarely flexed their industrial muscle.

There was a national road haulage strike in 1947. The drivers shook the Government on a few occasions in the 1950s – Special Branch were despatched to monitor some of their meetings. In 1979 the haulage men took nationwide strike action and got what they demanded.

Since, however, burgeoning legal constraints on industrial action, declining levels of membership, the slide from national to – at best – establishment level negotiation, and an embrace of the ‘individual contract of employment’ in an industry where groups of workers tend to be isolated in numerous relatively small firms, has led to the extraordinary and unhealthy state of the industry today.

This is one “important public service” loaded with shameless and exploitative employers putting lives at risk in the pursuit of profit. Is this the path we are destined to take in Tory Britain?

As a duty of care to the general public, the government should monitor and enforce safe working practices throughout this sector in line with the sentiment of the Working Time Directive. And if money is scarce, perhaps ask the haulage companies to fund the activity of the regulating body. After all, if Unions can be asked to pay the costs of their regulating body – the Certification Officer – why not ask employers to do the same!

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