The North Island stock transport industry is in crisis, according to truckies, with few if any companies making a profit in recent years and many drivers forced to work long hours in overloaded trucks.
The police say they are seeing grim consequences - a laden stock truck rolls at least once a month, spilling injured animals on to the road. Allegations are also being made of bribes to some stock agents to give an operator favourable treatment over others.
According to research by Waikato University for the Road Transport Forum, each truck on the road in 2010 was running at a loss of $8248 a year. Operators say that loss can only have grown since.
They say the pressure on their finances has brought:
Overloading, leading to animal welfare concerns and increased likelihood of accidents.
Defective trucks on the road.
Falsified log books.
Problems have been brought to a head this year by exceptional summer-autumn grass growth. Animals are fatter, but operators and drivers are under pressure to squeeze them on to trucks in the same numbers as last year.
The operators blame what they say is an unfair payment system and rates set by the meat companies that have not changed in four years.
Under the system, transport companies are paid for carting stock according to the number of animals carted and the distance travelled from pickup to destination. The payment does not account for the cost of getting to the pickup point.
One company is proposing a change, initially for non-meat company cartage, based on the number, weight and size of the animals carried and the full travelled distance. It is supported by other operators, but meat companies are resisting its extension to their cartage.
Inspector Gwynne Pennell, head of the police's commercial vehicle investigation unit, describes truck rollover accidents as heartbreaking.
"These situations, where you have got prime cattle beasts being put down on the side of the road, bleeding, limping, maimed, it's an absolute heartbreak," she says.
She is sympathetic to the drivers. "They are driving on unforgiving roads; there's no shoulders, just crumbling sides that give way. At the same time, the stock move around and the weight distribution changes.
"These guys have to be masters. It takes only a slight miscalculation to end up with a pretty ugly situation."
She says her staff are hearing disturbing stories when they stop drivers. "They are working 70 hours a week for a minimal wage: $16-$17-$18 an hour. So when they start fudging that log book it's not because they're creaming the money off. They're struggling to get by."
Some work for companies that give more work to those drivers prepared to stretch the rules, she says.
Over-weight trucks are being seen because of the good growing season. "Those situations are avoidable, because when the agent purchased the stock on behalf of the meat works they knew what they were weighing. But they don't want to do part-loads; they want them all on the one truck."
She says farmers, the meat companies and their agents must all bear responsibility.
"Everybody's making money except the transport firm, yet the system doesn't work unless the stock is transported."
She agrees the payment structure should change to be based on weight rather than numbers.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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