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Overworked and exploited: Wellington bus drivers describe their work

Report from RNZ by Harry Lock
Bus drivers in Wellington say they are being overworked and exploited, which is causing fatigue and affecting their personal lives. Three drivers, who work for Tranzurban which is a subsidiary of Tranzit, spoke to RNZ on condition of anonymity.

The Wellington Regional Council last year gave Tranzit the contract to run 60 percent of the region’s buses.

But drivers have been facing a range of issues, some of which predate the bus company change, but some of which have been as a result of the changeover.

They say they’re faced with a host of problems – from a lack of toilet facilities, to poor pay; from impossible time schedules, to unmanageable split shifts. One driver said they have developed high blood pressure as a result of the stress the job is putting on them.

Different organisations and authorities are responsible for different issues. For instance, while the bus company is responsible for the rosters, the pay, and the working conditions, the regional council is responsible for the routes, the schedules, and the vehicles used.

“They say it’s family-orientated, but it’s not our family, it’s their family”, one driver said. “They say it’s flexible hours but it’s incorrect once you get into it, it doesn’t happen … It’s very taxing on the body, it’s very taxing on the social life.”

“In terms of my wellbeing, I’m right down there,” a second driver said. “I’m on rock bottom. I have no energy for most things. I cannot go and see any friends, because I’m too tired.”

When they have tried to raise these issues, they said they are ignored. “What they should be doing is actually listening to the drivers,” the first driver said. “They don’t implement anything the drivers suggest.”

Tranzit declined RNZ’s request for an interview, but in a statement their director of transport and operations Keven Snelgrove said they are “in constant dialogue with [drivers] around issues facing our industry and are working together to find solutions”.

“Our drivers’ safety and welfare, along with that of our passengers, is always paramount,” he said.

Shifts taking a toll on personal lives

Shift papers given to RNZ show drivers starting work in the morning, and often not clocking off until 12 hours later.

Long shifts are compounded by unpaid meal breaks, and they often work split shifts with drivers working peak times in the morning and afternoon.

On weekends, they are rostered to work longer – one driver said they were behind the wheel for nearly 11 hours recently.

The second driver, who has worked there for roughly a year, said he didn’t think it would be like this. “I had not been informed we had to be working under such requirements in terms of time,” they said. “And I was actually angry that that information was missing when I had the interview.”

The first driver, who was driving buses for NZ Bus before Tranzit took over the service last year, said “their shifts were a lot better, where you’d start at 10, and finish at maybe 7.

“But you’d have an hour and a half break in between so you’d still get your eight hours in. It was a lot better – a lot more manageable. You don’t need a three-hour lunch break. Not every day.”

Work, the drivers said, is affecting their lives back at home.

A third driver, who is married with a child, said their personal life has deteriorated. “I don’t see my kid,” they said. “When I go to the work, I just go there, kiss them, and see them – they are sleeping, and I go outside.

“This is my life, as we work as bus drivers.

“What they’re asking us in this company – just like to be married to the job. Like man and wife, partners, the same. I don’t want to stay 15 hours every day in your depot.”

“Sometimes [they don’t] see [their] own [child] for days,” the driver’s partner said. “And it’s just the nature of [the] job. [They] get home tired, and [they don’t] have the energy to communicate. For me as a working [spouse], coming home and there is no support in terms of picking up my [child] and even dropping [them] off.”

Different issues with different authorities responsible

It is up to the bus company to set the pay rate, and there are fluctuations between bus companies. NZ Bus, which used to run the entire network and now operates around 30 percent of routes, compensates drivers for working long and anti-social hours. That’s because the company has remained on the already established Collective Agreement.

“We had the best agreement probably in the country,” said Wellington Tramways Union secretary Kevin O’Sullivan. “Penal rates double time on the Sundays, and after midnight. Short breaks and all that sort of stuff, and they made it work.

“But now, they don’t do that anymore, because we’ve been told, ‘We’re not running a public service anymore, it’s a business, we’ve got to make a profit.’

“We’ve still got our agreement with NZ Bus. But of course, Tranzit got the bulk of the work.”

At Tranzurban, drivers earn around $22 per hour, which is just above the living wage (far below train drivers and ticket collectors). They do not collect time and a half for weekends, nor on public holidays.

But there is a real issue of absenteeism because of the lack of incentivisation, the first driver said.

“The [previous company] never had an issue with getting staff to cover in the weekends. This company – you can pretty much guarantee you’ll be anywhere between two and five drivers down pretty much every weekend.”

Another pressure, that they blamed the regional council for, is the schedules, which set unrealistic timings between stops. And they said the time pressure starts off in the morning, with drivers obligated to complete a comprehensive safety check first thing.

But they are only given five to 10 minutes, one driver said, and it’s not enough time. As a result, “it means you’re late for your first run. When you’re late for your first run, and you’ve got a five hour run with no break, you have an awful lot of stress.”

“Who is the person who designed the shift?” the third driver said. “[They] designed it in a very bad way. He’s not a man, he’s a superhero.”

Toilet breaks but no toilets

Some shifts showed drivers are going for five hours straight, without a break. When drivers do get a toilet break, at many locations, the drivers said there’s not a toilet to use.

“You’re driving for three, four, five hours without a toilet break,” the first driver said. “One, it’s not healthy. Two, what happens when you have your period? You can’t go for that long.”

The issue of breaks is currently in progress. A Memorandum of Understanding was signed in April this year which gives drivers a certain amount of breaks for every hour they work, but companies have been given until the end of April in 2020 to implement them.

But beyond that, the first driver said the company does not look out for its drivers.

“There’s a number of people that have had their cash boxes stolen, threatened with knives on the bus,” they said.

“Even a couple of female drivers have been hit, assaulted. And the response from the company is ‘oh are you okay, can you continue?’ Whereas with the previous company, if anything like that happened, you were off for the rest of the day.”

The driver said if they were treated better, respected more, and paid more, they wouldn’t have such a problem with drivers not turning up for shifts.

Other issues include how management deals with their complaints and a high turnover of staff.

Tramways Union’s Kevin O’Sullivan said they’ve been dealing with Tranzit for a long time, but discussions have stalled.

“We’ve been talking for two years, and they’re nowhere near doing an agreement. They just don’t want an agreement – they want a collective agreement based on their individual agreements, which are basically, you come to work, you do as your told. You do what we want you to do, when we want you.”

The regional council declined a request for an interview, but in a statement, a spokesperson said the government is responsible for driver hours and breaks.

“The government aims to address these at a national level on many fronts. Greater Wellington supports these initiatives and is playing a national leadership role in ensuring changes happen.”

In its statement, Tranzit said they have a “robust internal process for reporting incidents, and our drivers’ safety and welfare, along with that of our passengers, is always paramount”.

They said the Bus and Coach Association are responsible for shift and toilet issues.

The Bus and Coach Association chief executive Pim Borren said in a statement that bus operators are working hard to resolve challenges caused by legislation with respect to rest and meal breaks. He said they could not have buses parked up in central Auckland or Wellington at peak hours when people need to get to work.

“We are trying to minimise perverse outcomes for drivers. But increased split shifts are an inevitable outcome of the new law,” Borren said.

1 comment:

  1. Kara Lipski, 9. December 2019, 16:21

    what new law requires bus drivers in our cities to put up with split shifts? Do the bus operators work split shifts?

    I consider that customers of public transport deserve drivers who are treated better and paid well by bus operators.

    Personally I prefer Wellington’s pre 2018 bus operator be given the bulk of the contract