Transport Workers Union v. Northline
While illegitimate or incompetent visa holders have gained truck- driver licences, the issue of companies attempting to ll a recruitment hole with overseas staff became a talking point.
And so, evidence before the Senate committee shed light on the Transport Workers Union’s ( TWU’s) campaign against transport and logistics rm Northline.
With former TWU member Senator Glenn Sterle in the chair, TWU national secretary Tony Sheldon had a receptive ear to explain his concerns to.
Sheldon cast Northline as an embodiment of a “race to the bottom — one that is entirely legal and one that successive governments are facilitating”. He claims such companies are “gaming the system” to drive down costs.
At issue was Northline’s seeking of a labour agreement to bring in 60 overseas forklift drivers on 457 visas.
“For us, this brought up two big issues,” Sheldon says in claims the company later rejected.
“The rst issue was: what exactly was the skill shortage Northline were facing? A quick check revealed the company had not tried very hard to recruit forklift drivers locally.
“In fact, we could only nd one job advert, which was received by letter, where they posted a position as a casual vacancy. The other issue was regarding the skills they are seeking. Training to become a forklift driver just takes two days. Northline’s letter to us explained that the company expected to actually train the overseas drivers once they were in Australia.”
Sheldon also brought up the issue of the level of oversight of such agreements, saying there was no effective scrutiny.
“With the announcement this year of an $800,000 cut to the Fair Work Ombudsman’s budget, I doubt there will be any scrutiny of these issues in Northline in the future,” he said.
“Of course, I also note that, even at the peak, under the previous government, there were only 13 inspectors that were allocated to visa holders.”
Northline CEO Craige Whitton hit back with a rebuttal document, saying forklift operators that have come to Australia as part of Temporary Work (Skilled) Subclass 457 visa program “are skilled forklift operators who are already trained in how to load unpalletised general freight, which is our core business”.
These employees are “skills assessed” before any offer of employment is made.
“The employees are required to attend a recognised training facility in Australia for the sole purpose of gaining an Australian forklift licence,” Whitton states.
“The skills required to load unpalletised general freight is rarely achieved by attending a two-day forklift training course.”
He notes that, as part of monitoring requirements of the Subclass 457 visa program, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) had undertaken a review of Northline’s compliance with the terms of the programme, including a review of the wages being paid.
“The DIBP wrote to Northline on 20 March 2017 advising that Northline has complied with its obligations,” he says.
On broader TWU criticism, Whitton offered a stout defence.
“Northline agrees and acknowledges that the Transport Workers Union of Australia, New South Wales (NSW) Branch ( TWU) approached our NSW depot on one occasion in July 2015 requesting that we enter in to an Enterprise Agreement with ‘our drivers’,” he writes.
“We explained to the TWU representative at the time that none of our NSW drivers are employees of Northline but are subcontractors, many of whom are owner-drivers.
“Mr Sheldon asserts that Northline “had not tried very hard to recruit forklift drivers locally”. His assertion appears to be based on a review of Northline job adverts for forklift operators during January 2017.
“Due to seasonal factors, the month of January is our quietest operational month, and a time when our need to recruit forklift operators is low or non-existent.”
“People are getting licences, but they don’t end up understanding the broader safety context they have to work in”
A little earlier, the inquiry heard from Australian Trucking Association (ATA) chief of staff Bill McKinley, who noted acceptance of his organisation’s calls to governments to: • Review all aspects of truck driver training and
assessment • The effectiveness of the National Heavy Vehicle Driver Competency Framework and the other state truck driver training schemes • The capabilities, competencies and qualifications required of both truck drivers and driver trainers. McKinley says Austroads had engaged a consultant to do that review, due to be completed by November.
Of the Senate inquiry’s evidence, the ATA had been particularly concerned at the lack of coordination between the RMS and ASQA, which oversees registered training organisations (RTOs).
McKinley emphasised what the ATA sees as the outcomes of a system that has many holes, saying “we have situations where, essentially, people wanting a heavy-vehicle licence are promised it in a day, or promised that if they don’t pass on the first attempt they’ll be able to continue trying until they get it.
“We have situations where people are getting licences, but they don’t end up understanding the broader safety context they have to work in.
“They don’t have an understanding of load restraint or fatigue or chain of responsibility.
“So we end up with badly undertrained drivers emerging with truck-driver licences, but they do not have the skills they need to work in the industry safely.
“There are some great trainers out there – I already mentioned DECA as one of them – but many others train to a price, or offer guarantees, and the quality can’t be guaranteed.”
The ATA wants heavy vehicle licensing in South Australia and the eastern states into the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator (NHVR) once the heavy vehicle registration scheme for the Heavy Vehicle National Law states is rolled out.
Still, it is not as if ASQA gives driver-training RTOs a totally free ride. So far this year it has cancelled the registrations of Sempcom Petroleum Transport Training Pty Ltd (RTO number 21928) and Echobreeze Pty Ltd (RTO number 31742) trading as AETECH Driver Trainer Heavy Vehicles.
This was “normal regulatory activity and not specifically related to the inquiry”, an ASQA spokesperson tells ATN.
More generally, despite concerns in some quarters of the industry, the organisation is confident shortfalls are few and far between.
Last year, the committee’s interim report’s Recommendation 15 asked ASQA to “conduct an audit of all heavy vehicle driver training facilities (registered training organisations) in Australia”.
“As part of the Australian Skills Quality Authority’s (ASQA) risk-based approach to regulation, regular scans are conducted across the vocational education and training (VET) sector, allowing for consistent or emerging issues of a systemic nature to be identified and addressed appropriately. None of these scans have, to date, identified any systemic or widespread concerns relating to heavy vehiclerelated training,” the ASQA spokesperson says of the issue.
“However, given the concerns expressed by the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee, ASQA has conducted a specific analysis of available information relating to heavy vehicle-related training. That scan did not identify any concerning trends or indicators of risk.
“ASQA acknowledges the importance of the road transport industry to Australia’s economy and the absolute necessity of ensuring the operators of heavy vehicles, particularly multi-combination vehicles, possess the required skills and knowledge to be able to carry out their jobs safely.
“ASQA will continue to engage with the relevant regulators and industry bodies to assist in identifying providers of interest. It will also continue to remind the training providers it regulates – and which are registered to deliver this training – of their regulatory obligations.”