With courier driv­ers in the news for all the wrong rea­sons, in­clud­ing poor pay and long hours, Donna Chisholm spent a day on the road with one con­trac­tor to find out what their job is re­ally like.

North & South - - Contents - BY DONNA CHISHOLM

A 10-hour day on the road with a courier driver who – like many other con­tract work­ers in her in­dus­try – strug­gles to make the min­i­mum wage.

It’s the courier’s equiv­a­lent of a mercy dash. There’s an un­happy cus­tomer and a box of half a dozen Dunkin’ Donuts that has mys­te­ri­ously van­ished af­ter be­ing de­liv­ered to the re­cep­tion desk of the in­tended re­cip­i­ent’s South Auck­land com­pany. One glazed, one choco­late frosted, one Bavar­ian crème, one cin­na­mon and 2 Bos­ton crème – all gone.

They’re a gift to Henri from his wife and chil­dren. “I donut know what we would do without you,” reads the in­scrip­tion on the box. But some­where be­tween the of­fice staff and Henri, the donuts have dis­ap­peared, and now the courier driver who dropped off the pre­cious par­cel but did not de­liver it di­rectly into hun­gry Henri’s hands is be­ing blamed. For Sub60 con­trac­tor Jac­qui David, the mis­sion is ur­gent and sim­ple – get the $14 worth of re­place­ment donuts to Henri: stat.

“I have to find Henri with an i,” says David, rac­ing up the stairs to an East Ta­maki of­fice with her cargo. The first box was de­liv­ered at 10.15am and it’s now af­ter 1pm. Henri is out and the staff are un­re­pen­tant. “They got ac­ci­den­tally eaten,” they tell her. Henri is called and told his donuts have ar­rived. He’ll be up in a minute, he says, just leave them there. Risky.

David will never know if the donuts reached their man, but she does won­der who took the fi­nan­cial hit for re­plac­ing them and re­de­liv­er­ing the box. At least she’s be­ing paid for the 3.8km trip from Dunkin’ Donuts in Botany to Henri’s of­fice. By the time she taps “com­pleted” on her screen, the job has taken around 10 min­utes and earned her $4.74. Just as well it made her smile. Fi­nan­cially, it wasn’t re­ally worth the ef­fort.

The pay and work­ing con­di­tions of the coun­try’s roughly 5000 “in­de­pen­dent con­trac­tor” courier driv­ers have been in the news af­ter ex­ten­sive cov­er­age on Ra­dio New Zealand’s Check­point pro­gramme drew at­ten­tion to their long hours and, in some cases, very poor re­turns. Now First Union is pre­par­ing a test case for the Em­ploy­ment Court, in a bid to ad­dress what it calls a “huge power im­bal­ance” in the con­trac­tual deal. It says courier driver earn­ings are dip­ping be­low min­i­mum wage, and their work­ing con­di­tions are such that they should be con­sid­ered em­ploy­ees, with the as­so­ci­ated ben­e­fits of sick leave and hol­i­day pay.

Pro­fes­sional driv­ers’ ad­vo­cacy group Pro­drive – which rep­re­sents owner­op­er­a­tors – an­a­lysed the earn­ings of 20 Freight­ways con­trac­tors in June last year and found that, on av­er­age, the driv­ers worked 2800 hours a year and re­ceived about $63,300, of which $33,000 went on costs. That gave them the equiv­a­lent of an hourly rate of around $11 be­fore in­come tax or de­pre­ci­a­tion – $5.50 an hour less than the

min­i­mum wage.

Pro­drive CEO Pete Gal­lagher says a re-anal­y­sis of a smaller group in the past few months found con­di­tions have im­proved, with av­er­age in­comes of around $68,000, but he says he hasn’t yet dealt with a driver who’s earn­ing as much as the min­i­mum wage. “They’re the work­ing poor,” says Gal­lagher. “It’s an in­dus­try-wide prob­lem.”

In Au­gust, Freight­ways, which op­er­ates 11 courier and busi­ness mail brands in­clud­ing Sub60, Post Haste, New Zealand Couri­ers, Cas­tle Parcels, Now Couri­ers and Kiwi Ex­press, re­ported a $62.2 mil­lion an­nual profit – $40 mil­lion of that com­ing from courier and post ser­vices. In the same fi­nan­cial year, Freight­ways con­trac­tor Jac­qui David was earn­ing just $15.30 an hour.

If it weren’t for the “Jacque­line David – In­de­pen­dent con­trac­tor” em­bla­zoned on her van doors, the 33-yearold mother-of-two reck­ons she’d some­times for­get she’s meant to be a busi­ness­woman, not an em­ployee. She might be her own boss, but it just doesn’t feel like it, most days.

She re­ports in when she stops for a cof­fee or toi­let break, even though tech­ni­cally she doesn’t have to. “I do it to be po­lite.” Some dis­patch­ers, though, keep an eye on the GPS on her van. They will know ex­actly how long she’s stopped for, or whether she takes an un­ex­pected de­tour. “I’ll pop home some­times, to go to the bath­room or eat my lunch, and they’ve said a cou­ple of times, ‘How long are you go­ing to be?’, and I’m like, ‘Shut up!’ It re­ally an­noys me; I need to have a break.”

Don’t get her wrong – Jac­qui David loves her job. Driv­ing is in her blood; her mother was a courier driver and she met her hus­band Ebenezer on the job. She’s been driv­ing off and on since 2002, tak­ing time off for her two chil­dren, a stint as a relief driver with an­other com­pany, and a few short weeks as a postie, be­fore re­turn­ing as an in­de­pen­dent con­trac­tor in Fe­bru­ary last year. Now, though, it’s only be­cause her hus­band is on good pay as a truckie that she can af­ford to stay in busi­ness. She can’t af­ford to leave, be­cause she’s locked into loan re­pay­ments on the new $37,000 van she bought last year. In six years, her Toy­ota Hi­ace will log up around 375,000km, av­er­ag­ing 250km a day.

David’s day be­gins a lit­tle later than many con­trac­tors – she’s ne­go­ti­ated more flex­i­bil­ity so she can start work at 8am rather than 7am, to drop off her sons at school. She’s usu­ally still go­ing at 6.30pm or later. To­day, her first pick up is a cou­ple of bath­room cab­i­nets to be taken from Bun­nings in East Ta­maki to a new home be­ing built 18km away in Wat­tle Downs. At Bun­nings, the ware­house staffer who helps her load the van will be earn­ing about $3 an hour more than David is. The builder at the con­struc­tion site where she drops the cab­i­nets will likely be on al­most twice as much.

By the time she’s signed the nec­es­sary pa­per­work, loaded the van, ne­go­ti­ated morn­ing traf­fic queues and hefted the cab­i­nets up a muddy drive­way to the site, a half hour has passed and David has earned $15.48. She’s pleased with that. Some­times, she can wait 30 min­utes for the par­cel to be found at the pick-up point. This time, she was there less than three min­utes.

Sub60 driv­ers get 59% of the fee for ev­ery job, but there’s a con­fus­ing range of dif­fer­ent job rates, in­clud­ing heav­ily dis­counted fees for reg­u­lar cus­tomers, through to pre­mium charges for pri­or­ity and “di­rect” de­liv­er­ies. A string of dis­count

jobs, she says, is pro­foundly de­press­ing. Al­though Pro­drive has been push­ing courier com­pa­nies to agree driv­ers should re­ceive a min­i­mum of $300-$350 a day (up from around $250 that was typ­i­cal be­fore the group got in­volved), David says she’d rather see the per­cent­age for each job raised. A higher day rate, she says, could en­cour­age some driv­ers to do only the min­i­mum.

“What’s to say one per­son isn’t work­ing harder than an­other and some are be­ing lazy? I know some boys who would get that rate and sit back and re­lax.”

Re­lax­ation isn’t in David’s lex­i­con. She rou­tinely jogs to and from her van, and is of­ten re­quired to sin­gle-hand­edly man­age de­liv­er­ies that weigh up to 70kg. “I just fig­ure out a so­lu­tion and I’ve man­aged ev­ery time. I don’t think some of the boys can even do it. You can call for an as­sist but I don’t do that. It’s a waste of time.” She re­mem­bers get­ting help only once, when she press-ganged a cou­ple of home­own­ers for the de­liv­ery of a 250kg tool cabi­net.

Weight’s no is­sue on the next job: two boxes of pa­pers to be de­liv­ered to the Manukau Fam­ily Court, and Beach­lands. Beach­lands! David al­most yelps with joy – that’s a 30-minute, 30km trip and it’ll pay $43. The court job is rel­a­tively lu­cra­tive, as well: $16.33. Her day im­proves fur­ther when she di­verts to Bun­nings in Botany to pick up a shelf to de­liver to How­ick and sees six alu­minium fence pan­els wait­ing to go to Beach­lands. “I’ll take ’em – I’m go­ing that way,” she tells them. Ka-ching. That’s an ex­tra $25.50 for some­where she’s al­ready go­ing. The dis­tance jobs are the best, she reck­ons. “When you’re just go­ing round and round all day you’re like, ‘Oh, my head.’ When you get to drive straight for half an hour, it’s ‘YES!’”

Be­fore Beach­lands, though, other jobs have come in. A box of mus­sels to take from Drury to Pen­rose ($30.23), a small box of truck parts from Pa­pakura to Otahuhu ($22.37). She con­tacts her dispatcher on the RT with her call num­ber. “173. I’m go­ing to knock that Manukau [fam­ily court] off now and head to the mids.” In courier par­lance, the “mids” are around Pen­rose, the cen­tral part of the south­ern run she cov­ers. She switched from “mains” – Auck­land cen­tral, where there are 50 driv­ers – to south, which has only seven, in Au­gust last year be­cause it of­fered more work and was closer to home, in Conifer Grove.

It’s 10.30am and time for a toi­let stop. There’s a com­pany in Pen­rose that she knows has good, clean loos, so David leaves the van run­ning (as she does with ev­ery job), and dashes through the re­cep­tion area where the staff know her, and heads to the bath­rooms. In less than two min­utes, she’s be­hind the wheel again, head­ing east to How­ick. Af­ter a quick fuel stop (the diesel costs $90 a tank and she fills up three times a week), she hits the open road to Beach­lands.

In the world of courier con­trac­tors, says Pro­drive’s Gal­lagher, Jac­qui David is both typ­i­cal and an out­lier. As a Eu­ro­pean woman, she’s un­usual, be­cause most driv­ers are men and new mi­grants, many of them Fi­jian In­di­ans. They’re of­ten locked in to the deal not only by their van re­pay­ments, but by their need to have a job if they’re try­ing for res­i­dency. David, who says she knows of only two other women in Sub60, tries to speak up for other driv­ers, who might be less ar­tic­u­late or as­sertive than she is. They’re her mates – a cou­ple of them are very close friends, with whom she so­cialises at week­ends.

“Very few of the driv­ers are Jac­quis,” says Gal­lagher, “al­though they are all Jac­quis. The con­di­tions are the same whether it’s Tom, Dick, Harry or Ab­dul­lah.” He believes the con­trac­tors sign up without know­ing ex­actly what they’ll be tak­ing home. “When they’re in the in­ter­view, the com­pa­nies can’t tell them the truth – that you’ll work all hours of the day, flog your­self to death, and they won’t pay you enough to feed your fam­ily.” He says driv­ers are told there’ll be a safety net of a guar­an­teed min­i­mum daily rate, of around $300, but, when costs are ac­counted for, even that some­times won’t give them the min­i­mum wage. Ac­cord­ing to Gal­lagher, ev­ery con­trac­tor he’s dealt with in the past four years has the same range of re­turns and ex­penses. “Would any­one go into busi­ness if they didn’t ex­pect they would make a liv­ing wage? The an­swer is no.”

He says courier com­pa­nies have “driven them­selves to the bot­tom. In or­der for them to make a profit, some­thing has to give, and there are only two di­men­sions in the in­dus­try: the van and the driver.

“Would any­one go into busi­ness if they didn’t ex­pect they would make a liv­ing wage? The an­swer is no.” PETE GAL­LAGHER

Once costs are cut to the min­i­mum, there’s only one place you can cap­ture costs, and that’s labour.”

Pro­drive has raised the sug­ges­tion with Freight­ways of in­creas­ing the per­cent­age driv­ers take from each job, but “they’re not go­ing to move on it. That goes straight to the share­holder bot­tom line and it’s not some­thing they are go­ing to shift on eas­ily.”

Driv­ers, how­ever, are still sold the idea they’re on their way to a bet­ter life. One com­pany’s con­tract, for ex­am­ple, con­tains this line: “Soon you’ll be driv­ing your way to busi­ness suc­cess.” In many cases, says Gal­lagher, this is not true. “They’re promis­ing au­ton­omy and de­liv­er­ing en­trap­ment.”

Pro­drive’s anal­y­sis puts Jac­qui David’s earn­ings at $15.30 be­fore tax, be­low the adult min­i­mum wage of $16.50. “It makes me sad,” she says – mildly, in the cir­cum­stances. “I’m putting in all this ef­fort for noth­ing.” It’s made her think again about chang­ing jobs, or re­sum­ing her stud­ies in the travel and tourism in­dus­try, which she be­gan when she left school. But the pull of courier driv­ing – and run­ning her own busi­ness – is still strong.

“The days go ex­tremely fast, and I love be­ing able to talk to peo­ple, but also be­ing on my own when I want. I re­mem­ber be­ing in an of­fice job and hit­ting 3pm and feel­ing dead and just hold­ing on un­til five. I hated that. I like the idea of be­ing a busi­ness per­son, but if the pay was good [else­where] and I en­joyed the job I would go, def­i­nitely.”

She and her fam­ily are cur­rently liv­ing with her mother and shar­ing rent and ex­penses to save money – they were rent­ing sep­a­rately un­til four years ago, when money got too tight. Things should im­prove next year, though, when her hus­band’s par­ents re­tire over­seas; they’ve left Jac­qui and Ebenezer their home in South Auck­land, which they’ll ren­o­vate and re­fur­bish be­fore mov­ing in.

She tries to put away $1000 a month in sav­ings, “but I al­ways end up tak­ing about $700 out”, and her credit card is al­ways “maxed out”. Monthly in­come varies greatly, from around $5200 in the slower win­ter months to around $9000$10,000 in the chaotic lead-up to Christ­mas. She of­ten takes leave in Jan­uary, when many busi­nesses are closed for the first fort­night. Thanks to the fact they have two in­comes, though, the fam­ily gets

an an­nual hol­i­day, some­times over­seas.

Back from Beach­lands, she’s head­ing to Mt Welling­ton for pick-ups in the “mids”. There’s a $34.13 “van job” her docket lists as hav­ing 13 parts, but two men at the de­pot in­sist it’s just one small­ish box. A few min­utes later, she has to re­turn – the men were wrong. But it’s her bot­tom line, not theirs, that will suf­fer that day.

She doesn’t stop for lunch un­til 3pm; she heats up last night’s left­over chicken ten­ders at the de­pot in Pen­rose and forks food from the con­tainer when she stops at the lights on her way to “the shal­low west”: Block­house Bay. It’s a $14 job, and the next one – tak­ing a let­ter warn­ing of a wa­ter sup­ply dis­rup­tion from Pen­rose to Mead­ow­bank ($15.86) – is a bit bet­ter still.

But by now, David re­alises she’s missed out on the usual rel­a­tively lu­cra­tive run of jobs dis­patched from Mid­dle­more Hospi­tal ev­ery Fri­day af­ter­noon, many of them de­liv­er­ing medicines for the week­end to out­pa­tients. They’re good ones, she says. Long dis­tances, with the ben­e­fit of land­ing her near her South Auck­land home at the end of the day.

David is left with rats and mice in the mids be­fore get­ting a de­liv­ery that will take her south at six. The af­ter­noon has been quiet, and the dispatcher says she can call it quits – the last job is just 400m from her home. As she turns her Hi­ace into a peakhour grid­lock of cars head­ing slowly home, a vivid dou­ble rain­bow arches across the black­en­ing sky to the south.

For David, there is no pot of gold at the end of it. Af­ter 10 hours and 262km, she is go­ing home with $320.74 from 17 jobs, a sum that will be al­most halved by her costs. Next week, she will do it all again, in the hope of a big­ger pay­day. In the mean­time, she is driv­ing on a one-way street. The sign­post on it reads “No Exit”. +

For David, there is no pot of gold. Af­ter 10 hours and 262km of travel, she is go­ing home with $320.74 from 17 jobs, a sum that will be halved by her costs.

On the run: to save time and keep fit, David rou­tinely jogs to and from de­liv­er­ies.

Sign­ing off af­ter an­other job is fin­ished. David de­liv­ers about 17- 25 pack­ages a day, and trav­els an av­er­age of 250km.

Pro­drive CEO Pete Gal­lagher says com­pa­nies are “promis­ing au­ton­omy and de­liv­er­ing en­trap­ment”.

David keeps pho­tos of her sons on the dash­board ( top); her day of­ten in­volves car­ry­ing heavy pack­ages ( above) on her own.

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