Second Reading – OWNER DRIVERS AND FORESTRY CONTRACTORS AMENDMENT BILL 2019

I am delighted to speak on the Owner Drivers and Forestry Contractors Amendment Bill 2019. As some of you in this place may know, in my previous career I was a small business owner, also a member of the Labor party—go figure—and also an IT consultant. One of our clients which I assisted in serving for well over a decade was the Transport Workers Union. I was fortunate enough to see how hard the leaders and organisers of the TWU fight for their members and for safety on our roads. When I first started working for the TWU the secretary was a man by the name of Bill Noonan, and I note that last August the previous member for Williamstown—his son, Wade Noonan—spoke passionately on this bill. I would have been assisting the TWU in my previous capacity when the original legislation came in in 2005 before the Parliament, and I am proud to add my voice to their cause today on this much-needed amendment.

This bill at its core seeks to ensure that our Victorian roads are safer by ensuring thousands of owner-drivers, forestry contractors and on-demand workers are paid a living wage. This bill will ensure these workers will no longer be vulnerable to exploitation or forced into unsafe practices by economic pressures down supply chains.

The bill also expands the act to cover third-party contracting platforms such as Uber Freight and Uber Eats, which are to be included in the definition of ‘freight broker’. So whether you are driving a B-double hauling timber or riding a bike running dumplings with soy sauce, this bill provides comfort for small business owner-drivers.

The big ticket items here are the prevention of undercutting joint agreements and penalties for non-compliance; payments being made to owner-drivers within 30 days of invoice receipt; a new low-cost binding dispute resolution process at the Small Business Commission; and providing information for small business owner-drivers and forestry contractors to understand the revenue and costs of the business they are starting, with a framework for the regulation of contracts between owner-drivers, forestry contractors and their hirers.

The purpose of this bill, as I said, is to make miscellaneous amendments to the Owner Drivers and Forestry Contractors Act 2005, which was introduced by the Bracks Labor government, another delivering Labor government—we have had a few of those. Before this act was introduced workers were facing more and more increased demand on their work while simultaneously seeing less and less come home in their back pockets. This provided basic protections for owner-drivers by recognising the power imbalance between owner-drivers operating one to three vehicles versus big companies and big hirers, and aimed to improve the protections of small business drivers.

The amendments in this bill seek to address changes that have occurred in this industry since 2005. If owner-drivers and forestry contractors can cover their operational costs and maintain their vehicles, we will have greater safety for drivers and for our road users. It sounds fairly simple, but for anyone who has run their own small business, day to day is rarely simple. We do not want drivers being forced into situations where they need to work additional hours to cover operating costs. This bill seeks to remedy this problem which is occurring now. As the previous member for Williamstown mentioned 12 months ago, and it is still relevant today, long-haul driving means an exposure to multiple risks: long working hours, sedentary roles, poor access to nutritious food, social isolation, shift work, time pressures, low levels of job control and of course the biggest risk of all being fatigue. But if you are a small business owner-driver you can add running the books, negotiating contracts, chasing payments, managing cash flow and the list goes on. Just because you get home does not mean you stop working.

Now, being paid fairly can be the difference between being able to put food on the table for your kids that week or not. And if you are not being paid fairly, it may force some to push that maintenance for their truck one week further out, and this is obviously something we cannot advocate for as a society. Improving the protections available to small businesses—namely, owner-drivers in the transport industry and haulage contractors in the forestry industry—means a lot for our drivers. Drivers do a dangerous job when they keep Australia moving, and it is important that the right protections and workers rights are in place for them. Especially important here is the amending of contracting requirements in the act to require the payment of invoices within 30 days. I know that members from both sides have mentioned this being a very good thing.

Having worked as a small business owner, I understand that what you really want to do is actually do the work. When starting a small business you are most likely living month to month, and that gets even harder when you do not know if the money is coming in 60 days, 90 days or even longer. Our owner-drivers want to drive and earn a living. Chasing a hirer for a payment 120 days overdue means you are not earning. Arguing over a contract means you are not driving and you are not earning. These are the problems that this bill seeks to remedy.

Starting up businesses is hard, and this amendment bill will ensure that new drivers and forestry contractors have a better understanding of the costs of the new job they will be undertaking. Our owner-drivers need this bill and their families need this bill. This bill is not only about establishing a framework for compliance and enforcement but also ensuring this framework is used by introducing penalties for non-compliance with the mandatory requirements of the act. These amendments ensure owner-drivers and forestry contractors better understand cost structures, the importance of negotiating fair contracts and running successful small businesses.

This amendment bill will clarify the definition of ‘freight broker’, ensuring contractors employed through third-party contracting platforms like Uber Freight are covered. The act will now require a hirer or a freight broker to provide the rates and costs schedule annually rather than each time the contractor is engaged. It also amends the act to clarify that contractors have the option of being covered by the same terms and conditions of an existing contract that has been jointly negotiated while at the same time retaining the ability to negotiate their own contractual arrangements. This is important to ensure consistency and in order for start-up drivers to be able to forecast their finances.

This bill will also amend the functions of the Transport Industry Council and the Forestry Industry Council to specify that they can provide advice and make recommendations to the minister on promoting industry best practice, education and training. These councils are made up of members from industry, employee associations and government, and they are responsible for making recommendations to the minister on industrial relations and on commercial practices affecting owner-drivers and forestry contractors.

As a previous small business owner, I understand the trials and tribulations of trying to settle a dispute over accounts. The last thing you need to do is end up in court or VCAT. It is costly, it is stressful, you do not want to be there. The process is not just costly; it also takes so much time and you are not earning. For owner-drivers who have disputes with hirers, this new amendment creates a dispute resolution procedure which specifies that the small business commission can arrange arbitration where the parties to the dispute agree. This means drivers can now have a faster low-cost, confidential, binding dispute resolution process for parties in dispute.

This bill strengthens the initial act from 2005 to ensure that issues that inevitably affect the wellbeing of drivers are considered and addressed. It understands the owner-driver’s role is essentially that of a small business owner and seeks to implement basic rights to even out the playing field between owner-driver and hirers. I do not know if there is one person in this room who would be impressed to have to wait a random 30, 60 or 90 days to see their pay roll in. Enshrining basic protections around payment due dates is incredibly important. The owner-drivers and contract drivers industry needs education, enforcement and compliance, and this bill will deliver it.

The people making recommendations to the minister need to be people who speak on behalf of these workers and who understand their roles. Amending the bill to specify that the Transport Industry Council and the Forestry Industry Council can provide advice and make recommendations to the minister on promoting industry best practice, education and training is also incredibly important, as I said.

These reforms will hopefully see improvements for owner-drivers—I think they will. Drivers should be getting paid on time, drivers should be safe at work and drivers should be getting paid fairly. The Transport Workers Union have worked hard and advocated at every opportunity to drive safer outcomes for their members and the industry. I would like to congratulate John Berger, his staff, organisers, delegates and members of the Victoria-Tasmania branch for their tireless efforts in making their members safer.

But let us also note that every one of us that share the roads with our owner-driver mates are also safer because of this bill. Ensuring that contractors can cover their business costs and maintain vehicles will result in greater safety for all our road users as drivers will not need to work additional hours, potentially breaching fatigue laws or road laws to cover the cost of running their business. I commend this bill to the house.