Transport

‘Revolving door of drivers’ amid bus industry crisis

Bus drivers facing low wages, unfriendly hours, and poor management share their stories. Meanwhile, Transport Minister Phil Twyford tells Laura Walters about his plan to replace the legislation he believes is to blame for the industry’s “race to the bottom”.

When Lucy answers the phone she puts it on hold on for a second before starting the conversation – there are cameras and microphones in the bus and she’s worried she will lose her job if she’s caught publicly sharing her experience.

She has worked as a bus driver for Ritchies Murphy in Auckland for just over a year, and she loves the job, but not the pay, conditions or management.

Lucy isn’t her real name, and Newsroom has decided not to name the depot where she works in order to protect her identity.

Lucy and John – also not his real name – agreed to talk about the situation they’ve found themselves in amid the current bus driver shortage crisis.

The shortage has led bus operators like Ritchies looking overseas in order to plug the worker gap. Others say there isn’t a lack of able drivers in New Zealand, but low wages and poor conditions are driving away employees.

There were never enough drivers to cover the runs, Lucy said, which often led to cancelled services. This was something Wellington commuters have also become accustomed to in recent months.

“I’ve never been in a company when they have so many drivers quit," she said.

During the week in May when Lucy spoke to Newsroom, two drivers had quit. A further seven people had left the company the previous week, and two the week before that.

“They just can’t seem to keep drivers... there’s a revolving door of drivers."

This picture of churn and driver shortage is consistent across the industry.

“Of course a union is going to seize the opportunity, start jumping up and down, when we are looking to source more drivers and they are preparing to negotiate a collective agreement. It does not detract from the extreme shortage of drivers across the heavy transport industry, which includes both freight and bus passenger transport.”

But there are different points of view on what was behind the struggle to attract and retain drivers.

In emails that formed part of Ritchies Transport Holdings’ application for approval in principle (AIP) to bring in 110 drivers from overseas to plug the driver gap, the company said the lack of drivers was due to“a very healthy economy and tourism industry”.

Ritchies said there was a shortage of workers across nearly all industries, including the bus passenger transport industry, referring to the low unemployment rate.

The company pointed out it ran driver training programmes and was working with prison reform group the Howard League to recruit people who had been released from prison.

“Would just like to point out that we are not a large foreign owned multi-national company that pays the minimum wage. We are a 100 percent NZ owned family business. We have a very low staff turnover and people work for us because of our family values and the way we treat our people,” Ritchies said in an email in April 2018.

“Of course a union is going to seize the opportunity, start jumping up and down, when we are looking to source more drivers and they are preparing to negotiate a collective agreement. It does not detract from the extreme shortage of drivers across the heavy transport industry, which includes both freight and bus passenger transport.”

Ritchies holds the Auckland Transport contracts to operate public services in West and North Auckland. It recently acquired Birkenhead Transport, which holds the contract for the North Shore.

Director and shareholder Andrew Ritchie did not respond to requests for comment.

However, drivers who spoke to Newsroom, FIRST Union and Transport Minister Phil Twyford had a different view, and all spoke about a “race to the bottom”, caused by a tendering system focused on “value for money”.

"This company does not give a damn, and I’m being polite when I say this."

The tender process, which saw councils place a 60 percent weighting on cost, led to bus operators with the lowest bids being rewarded. And with 50 percent of an operators costs going towards wages, the cuts were passed on to drivers.

Lucy said people left Ritchies Murphy because of poor management, low pay, and the harsh reality of split shifts.

Low-paid workers were hired on what seemed like a reasonable hourly wage of $20.60 (for Ritchies workers in Auckland), but the “off-book time” in the middle of the shifts was disruptive and unsocial.

In Auckland, it wasn’t feasible for drivers to go home for the four hours between shifts, so they sat at the depot and read books, or waited around.

Lucy also painted a picture of a rift between drivers and management, where drivers were told off for leaving a timing point “two seconds early” or waiting in a layover area “for two minutes too long”.

If drivers proactively reported something from their run, they received a letter from management. And new drivers were not given a reasonable grace period to get used to systems, before they were being reprimanded.

“This company does not give a damn, and I’m being polite when I say this,” she said.

“In saying that, I love my job; I enjoy my job.”

Lucy said the company was "even pissing off the ‘old timers’ who have been driving for years and years".

Morale low among drivers

One of those ‘old timers’ Lucy refers to is John. John (not his real name) has been driving buses for more than two decades, and has been with Ritchies about 19 years.

Like Lucy, he said he liked his job – “it’s a shame about the other stuff”.

John was planning to ride it out until retirement (he's 60) but understood why others wanted to leave.

“Morale is low in the company with the workers.”

There was a lack of appreciation for drivers, he said, adding that there was nothing extra for drivers by way of a gift or token of thanks last Christmas.

John also spoke about the lack of penal rates and cash incentives.

Transport Minister Phil Twyford has ordered his officials to review PTOM over the next year, then Government, industry and unions will make a decision on what will replace the current model. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

As well as a lower hourly wage, drivers were not paid for overtime – John regularly does about 2.5 hours unpaid – or given penal rates for working weekends.

There was also a lack of consistency and predictability around the number of hours people were given. 

FIRST Union divisional secretary Jared Abbott said Ritchies was generally “an awful employer”.

“Personally, I don’t think he’s fit to run a public service, funded by the taxpayer.”

Both said the cost-weighted system was to blame for driving down wages, and rewarding operators with the lowest costs.

There were other bus companies that would like to increase their rates, but could not do so without putting their contracts at risk, Abbott said.

The union was hopeful about recent changes, including flexible paid breaks, and a commitment to pay the living wage across the whole sector.

However, the Public Transport Operating Model (PTOM), which was at the core of how councils awarded contracts, needed to go in order to fix the "crisis" plaguing the sector, he said.

The union would like councils to have more of a social procurement policy, which looked at the ethics and the history of some of the operators.

Public Transport Operating Model to be replaced

Transport Minister Phil Twyford agrees with the union’s diagnosis, saying the PTOM, which came into effect in 2013, was at the core of the problem.

PTOM was an attempt to create a model that saw passenger numbers grow and reduced reliance on local and central government subsidies.

Along with the law-change, came an NZTA manual dictating how councils would make procurement decisions. While the procurement process has strategies for dealing with rogue or low-ball offers, councils put about 60 percent weight on the cost of the offer, when making a decision.

Compared to international systems, the PTOM was “right at the extreme end of the spectrum as a competitive tendering process”, Twyford said.

“Inevitably, it’s had the effect of repressing wages and conditions.”

New Zealand could not achieve its goals to build “a 21st century, high-performance transport system”, if workers weren’t properly paid and working in poor conditions, he said.

So the minister has set his officials to reviewing the model. The review is due to be completed by mid-2020, then the Government will decide what will replace the PTOM.

Twyford stressed there was no rush to drop the model, with most big tendering rounds completed (and Canterbury due next year). It was also important to have all parties at the table and to learn lessons from the past few years.

"New Zealanders just want to see progress on reducing congestion in our cities. Phil Twyford has been very good at stopping major transport projects designed to do this, and hopeless at starting new ones.”

When asked whether there was merit in PTOM’s attempt to move towards a commercially independent public transport model, Twyford laughed. “That’s nuts,” he said. The priority was delivering choice to Kiwis, and delivering on the Government’s urban vision.

Last year, Twyford unveiled a $16.9 billion transport plan, which included almost $4b invested in public transport, rapid transit and rail.

But National Party transport Spokesperson Paul Goldsmith questioned the Government's approach, saying if Twyford was suggesting a move away from the push for competitive tenders for public transport services then he needed to explain where the extra money would come from to pay for buses and trains.

“The reality is, public transport is already heavily subsidised by both taxpayers and ratepayers,” Goldsmith said.

"New Zealanders just want to see progress on reducing congestion in our cities. Phil Twyford has been very good at stopping major transport projects designed to do this, and hopeless at starting new ones.”

Goldsmith also said the public transport unions were using PTOM as an argument for negotiating purposes.

“The Government has to take responsibility for the expectations it has built up amongst unions with its flagged industrial relations changes and demonstrate how it will deal with this."

* Read about Ritchies' rejected application to recruit more than 100 bus drivers from overseas here.

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