Richard Wagstaff: Resolving bus dispute needs long term strategic approach

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Richard Wagstaff. Photo / Supplied
Richard Wagstaff. Photo / Supplied

The Auckland Bus dispute is not any closer to reaching a settlement and likely to cause even more disruption to Auckland commuters over the days and weeks ahead unless some fundamental issues are addressed.

Central to the dispute are the conditions of work for bus drivers. Real improvements at work for these bus drivers are needed. This isn't simply about pay but also their rosters which are currently put together without much thought about the people who actually drive the buses.

The hours of work are long with drivers often expected to work for a few hours, have a few unpaid hours off and then work another few hours, as well as short rest and toilet breaks which are insufficient to provide the kind of service that these drivers want to provide.

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Resolving this dispute needs a long term strategic approach that will guarantee Aucklanders better bus services and bus driver's better jobs - which is what everyone needs after all. These things can only happen if some of the established practices and arrangements are fundamentally changed.

Firstly, the contracting arrangements between Auckland Transport and NZ Bus (or any other company trying to win a contract and operate a successful service) are structured in a way which actually encourage employment disputes. This is because of competitive tendering process. The bus drivers have no voice in this process despite the fact that these negotiations directly impact on them. It is simply a process that encourages cost cutting and wage cutting without negotiation. After a contract has been won by a company, its drivers and their unions are presented with a fait accompli which leaves little room to negotiate or reach agreement.

Secondly, the current system is further fragmented because Auckland Transport independently sets the routes and timetables, without input or advice from bus drivers, and expects strict compliance from the bus companies. As a result, the employer and the unions involved in the current dispute do not have the ability to alter some of the key elements that have created the problems.

What is required is a different equation - one involving problem solving through committed dialogue and discussion by all of those parties who have real influence in this issue. We need to give those people at the bargaining table the best possible chance of reaching a fair agreement by providing a wider framework that allows real input by both bus companies and bus drivers into the design and operation of bus routes and timetables.

But we also need to rethink our outdated attitudes to competitive tendering and employment standards. The current practices mean bus drivers are shunted from employer to employer with little or no protection of their employment conditions. We can do better. Transport agencies could run their own services instead of contracting out which would remove most of these problems. Short of this solution Auckland Transport should adopt a responsible contracting policy which would mean successful bidders for bus contracts would have to transfer all employees that wish to do so, along with their existing employment agreements.

More broadly, we need to update our employment law so that it resembles the more successful OECD economies and provides for wider coverage and extension of collective agreements. This way all working people can successfully protect and promote their conditions within an industry. Tendering should be based on a level playing field of decent pay and conditions for those who make the system work - the drivers and other employees of all bus companies - and not a race to the bottom.

• Richard Wagstaff is the President of the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions

- NZ Herald

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