Ending the squeeze: The federal government should be doing more to assist road transport, not making the job tougher

February 28, 2022

By TWU National Secretary, Michael Kaine.

For two pandemic years owner drivers and small fleet operators have put their shoulder to the wheel to keep Australia moving. They’ve had to change and adapt how they do their important work; forced to jump through hoops without support to keep supply chains pumping.

Drivers stepped up because they knew the country was counting on them, and accepted minor changes were necessary to keep themselves and their families safe.

Yet, while drivers have been gracious heroes of this pandemic, the same can’t be said about the federal government. Riding roughshod over the industry, the federal government has maintained the same terrible attitude when it comes to introducing policy responses to the pandemic.

When drivers on the ground object or raise concerns about their practicality, the federal government’s approach remained the same: ignore, dismiss, reject.

In the process, the Prime Minister’s chains is in knots. The work of the owner-drivers and small fleet operators who move produce from our farms, minerals from our mines and goods from our manufacturers nationwide has been made even harder as a result.

Throughout the pandemic no one has expected the federal government to have all the answers. To be frank, nor should it: Members of Parliament aren’t the ones working in critical industries every single day. What we do expect of the government – and the Prime Minister in particular – is to be willing to listen to those who are road transport experts: the men and women behind the wheel.

What’s stood out most clearly these last few years is that the Prime Minister has a tin ear. He’s refused to listen when drivers and small fleet operators proposed constructive measures – like free rapid tests and paid vaccination leave – to keep themselves safe and supply chains open.

Even worse, the Prime Minister’s shown he’s willing to sacrifice the safety of drivers when he’s under pressure and needs to make it look like he’s doing something.

The hare-brained decision to wind back isolation rules for close contacts is the perfect example. We’ve heard countless stories of workers being frogmarched back to work while potentially infectious because of the National Cabinet’s decision.

Others have told us they were told not to bother testing despite sharing cabins with workmates with the virus. Some drivers have even been forced to drive while lightheaded. It’s a disgraceful display that’s confirmed what those of us in the industry have said for years: drivers are always the ones suffering the consequences of the federal government’s mismanagement of road transport.


The time for knee-jerk political decisions and photo-ops has passed. Drivers have weathered the COVID storm for over two years and very little has been done by governments in that time to make their jobs any easier.

That’s why the Transport Workers Union (TWU) – together with the Australian Workers’ Union (AWU) and the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA) in our Retail Supply Chain Alliance – has developed a set of key principles to keep drivers safe and national supply chains open.

At the heart of our Supply Chain Safety Principles is recognition that living with the virus is something we need to accept for the medium-term. However, that doesn’t mean we need to be reckless and should give up on practical strategies to minimise the risk of transmission.

That’s why we’ve reiterated our demands for drivers to receive free antigen rapid tests (RATs) – something we first raised with Scott Morrison in September last year.

Free and accessible RATs are critical to catch the virus before it has a chance to knock out entire workplaces or hitch a ride through national supply chains. The lack of available testing is only part of the problem.

The federal government’s rolled out half-baked ideas like watering down forklift licence rules without speaking to the industry about whether that’s actually a good idea.

That’s why we’ve called for a standing Supply Chain Consultation Committee to advise governments twice a year, and whenever the federal government is considering policy changes that will impact supply chains and drivers.

The Committee should bring together owner-drivers and small fleet operators, employee drivers, unions and industry groups like the Australian Road Transport Industrial Organisation to ensure governments get the clearest picture of what their decisions will mean for drivers out on the road.


Finally, we’re calling on the federal government to finally commit to rein in gig behemoths like Amazon, which are smashing supply chains and making it even harder for owner-drivers to remain afloat – let alone make a profit.

National supply chains are at their best when the operators and drivers working in them maintain the highest standards by playing by the same rules. These gig bottom feeders don’t – they deliberately shift drivers outside industrial relations laws, ripping them off fair pay and denying drivers access to basic entitlements like sick leave when they contract the virus.

We need only look at what’s happening overseas to recognise the existential threat these companies pose if they’re able to import their system of exploitation from overseas.

The operations of general freight companies and owner-drivers in Europe and the United States are being cannibalised by the likes of Amazon Flex and Uber Freight, and drivers are being left to survive off the whiff of an oily rag as a result.

Only federal regulation to end the ‘Amazon Effect’ wringing supply chains dry and undercutting owner-drivers’ razor thin margins is the best way to push back on the tsunami of gig exploitation crashing down on drivers.

These three core demands refocus the national attention that’s been on supply chains to making it easier, safer and more sustainable for the hardworking drivers who keep them moving.

Ultimately, no one knows what the future holds, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be planning ahead. The next variant or natural disaster has the potential to again throw supply chains into chaos. Implementing these principles immediately – in addition to the Senate’s recommendation that the federal government establishes an independent body to set and enforce minimum standards in road transport – are the first steps to shoring up the sustainability of our supply chains.

At the end of the day, national supply chains are only as healthy as the men and women working in them. The federal government’s response to COVID has left so many drivers behind but, with the considerable focus on supply chains over these past few months, we have an opportunity to apply public pressure to change that.

By standing together and demanding change, we can finally achieve the industry reforms necessary to end the squeeze on owner-drivers and small fleet operators, and set up the sustainability of national supply chains into the future.