Dave Armstrong: Bus drivers deserved better pay and treatment

About 300 Wellington bus drivers met resolving not to sign any contract with new employers unless their current wages ...
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About 300 Wellington bus drivers met resolving not to sign any contract with new employers unless their current wages and conditions are kept.

OPINION: 'Thank you, driver.' That's what I hear from polite Wellington passengers almost every time my bus stops. Overall, I find Wellington's drivers mostly obliging and helpful. That might be because they are better paid than many other bus drivers, and have largely good relations with their employers, NZ Bus.

So why did NZ Bus recently lose its tender to continue running most of Wellington's buses? Under government rules, if you outsource your buses you have to re-tender every few years. While that can discourage inefficiency and corruption, the bad news is that if a tender is lost, then the drivers with the old provider lose their jobs, while the new provider needs to find skilled labour quickly.

So what happens if drivers working for NZ Bus switch over to work for the new providers when the new contract starts? It seems they will face a substantial pay cut.

Dave Armstrong says he finds Wellington's drivers mostly obliging and helpful.
MAARTEN HOLL/STUFF

Dave Armstrong says he finds Wellington's drivers mostly obliging and helpful.

When the Greater Wellington Regional Council tender to operate Wellington's trains was won by French company Transdev in 2015, a condition of the tender was that any staff transferring from the previous provider had to be retained under the same conditions. 

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Yet in the recent GWRC bus tender, many conditions, such as routes and types of buses to be used, were stipulated, but nothing about drivers' conditions was mentioned. It seems that price was the overriding factor, not quality. 

"I am ashamed with GWRC and especially Chris Laidlaw and Paul Swain who resisted efforts to ensure drivers wages were protected when routes were re-tendered," wrote Hutt South MP Trevor Mallard recently. 

But were the GWRC forced to act that way by government regulations? Not according to former GWRC councillor Judith Aitken. "The GWRC holds all the contractual strings and can decide to award, or not award, the contract to the company that has ... first class qualifications for retaining and preferably greatly improving the former terms and conditions of drivers' jobs." 

Apparently NZ Bus didn't even tender some routes as it's an expensive process and they knew they wouldn't have a chance with the higher-than-minimum wages they were paying their drivers.

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Not that you or I know the exact details, as the tender process is so cloaked in confidentiality and that some regional councillors seem reluctant to speak about the tender as they may be breaching various rules. 

Wellington's bus drivers are not asking for a pay rise but have taken limited industrial action simply to keep their existing pay and conditions if they are employed by a new contractor. Can you blame them? Would you take a substantial pay cut simply because the ownership of your company changed? 

So what if the drivers won't budge and nor will the new bus operators? Wellington will face a severe driver shortage, so the alternatives will be the loss of services or perhaps the quick importing of cheap labour to do the jobs our current drivers won't.  

While most Wellingtonians say 'thank you, driver' each morning, it seems that the GWRC have said a great big "screw you, driver". 

But surely the GWRC are simply trying to keep costs down by delivering the cheapest possible service? Let's not forget that they have allocated a whopping $7 million to the bus tender process and have already splashed out nearly $3.9 million. 

Some $7 million would give every current Wellington bus driver about a $10,000 bonus. I wonder if the $1.3 million already paid to consultants Deloitte included staff having to work split shifts? Let's hope the lawyers from six different law firms engaged by the GWRC on the re-tendering process are not being told they'll have to work for less than a living wage once the new bus operators take over.

Wellington bus passengers face a future of large, dirty, non-trolley buses driven on new routes by lowly-paid drivers who may be exhausted from being forced to do heaps of overtime. What could possibly go wrong?

If you take a bus this week, I suggest a loud "thank you, driver" will send our bus drivers the message that as well as appreciating their hard work, you value their contribution far more than the staff, elected officials and highly paid consultants of the GWRC.

 - Stuff

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