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Stagecoach's Auckland bus drivers are being offered the $16 hourly wage for which they have battled for seven months and gone on strike twice.

This is a 14.7 per cent rise from $13.94 now and it is expected to be followed next winter by an increase to $16.20c as the final instalment of a two-year pay deal.
The company is also understood to have offered its 900 or so unionised drivers a before-tax cash payment of $1300 in lieu of backpay - a $300 increase from a package which they rejected resoundingly last month after a six-day strike.

Drivers would under its previous offer have received $15 now and had to wait until 2007 for $16, after an interim step to $15.40 late next year.

But Stagecoach is seeking changes to overtime payments, including a reduced penal rate and an extension to hours paid at ordinary-time wages.

The settlement comes just after a two-day visit to New Zealand by the Scottish chief executive and founder of Stagecoach's British parent company, Brian Souter.

Stagecoach denies he had anything to do with the settlement, despite a suggestion by drivers that he had expressed concern about reduced patronage during and after their strikes.

Auckland rail operator Connex says it is still carrying an average morning peak load of about 500 passengers more than the 2700 who caught trains before the last strike, which ended more than three weeks ago.

Neither Stagecoach nor the four unions involved in the dispute would elaborate yesterday on a joint statement approved by Labour Department mediator Keith Handley.

The information clampdown followed statements from both sides and Mr Handley about the previous offer which proved too optimistic.

Although the latest statement described $16 as the top rate of a two-year deal, the Weekend Herald understands this is a reference to only the first instalment, for drivers who have completed training and several months of sole-charge duties.

It has been assured that the new wage would be paid immediately after a vote by drivers on the offer.

Depot-by-depot meetings will be held next week to explain the deal, but passengers are assured there will be no disruption to services.

Proposed changes to overtime include a reduction in the pay rate to time-and-a-quarter, and an extension of ordinary-time hours to 45 a week.

This compares with time-and-a-half now paid after eight hours a day, or after 40 hours a week.

The deal

* $16 an hour now
* Extra 20c an hour next year
* Cuts in overtime rates