Multi-truck accident on M4: Photo: WikiCommons 2012

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BY LANIE TINDALE

A transport union has accused the Sydney Motorway Corporation [SMC] of failing to force truck drivers to abide by the law at a NSW parliamentary inquiry. 

The Transport Workers Union [TWU], which represents 20,000 people in NSW, told the Inquiry concerns had been raised by members since mid 2016. 

The failure of WestConnex contractors to comply with legal requirements has led to safety issues, TWU told the Inquiry. These include overloading of trucks, fatigued drivers, defective vehicles and the under and late payment of workers leading to drivers taking on a dangerous workload. 

In a written submission to the Inquiry, TWU wrote that in March 2017 various organisations including the RMS and highway patrol police conducted a “safety blitz” on WestConnex contracted trucks after several serious accidents. In one accident in February 2017, a WestConnex truck loaded with soil crashed on the M7 “trapping one person in a car and injuring four.”

The investigation, dubbed ‘Operation Catapult’, discovered “racked couplings, bald tyres, deficient brakes and evidence of speed limiter tampering.” Over two days 33 defect notices and 22 infringements were issued. 

TWU told the Inquiry it conducted interviews with drivers during the “blitz” and were told by drivers they were instructed to start work early – without recording the earlier starting time – loaded without consultation on maximum load requirements; and were told to continue operating after complaining about defective vehicles. 

“[Drivers] often felt they had no option but to do as they were told by the loaders on the WestConnex project from fear of losing a load or the contract,” TWU wrote. 

During the hearing, committee member Cate Faehrmann asked about a TWU media release from March 2017 that said:  “[There is] a tangled web of companies that contract and sub contract to each other, so much so that the TWU is positive that WestConnex is not even aware at any given time of which trucks are working on the site.”

TWU State Secretary Richard Olsen told the Inquiry when head contractors subcontract work there are “two things that go missing … safety and rates of pay and remuneration overall, whether it be employees or owner-drivers.”

Mr Olsen told the Inquiry it also led to “the top of chain” absolving responsibility. “[T]hey say, “No, this is not our concern. We have contracts with other people who are in charge of that.”

Ms Faehrmann asked: “[A]are there any current risks or breaches of safety that is happening at the moment around WestConnex construction sites that you are concerned about?”

Mr Olsen said: “It is consistent, year in, year out, on different projects, and on WestConnex it happens today and it will continue happening when fatigue legislation is not addressed. Overloaded vehicles and vehicles that may not be registered are attracted to that site.”

When Ms Faehrmann asked if “there was a similar degree of contracting and subcontracting that goes on in the other projects [like the completed M5]” compared to WestConnex, Mr Olsen said: “Yes. I believe so.”

The underpayment and late payment of drivers – both employed directly by contractors and owner drivers – was raised as a concern in the Inquiry. 

In March 2017 TWU found that Road Constructions Australia [RCA] had under paid 35 employees. TWU also said “vehicles engaged by RCA were overloaded 90 per cent of the time.” Most drivers did not record rest breaks “correctly or consistently”, TWU told the inquiry. “This suggested that fatigue breaks were not being taken or not being recorded or monitored in compliance with chain of responsibility laws.”

While RCA “subsequently rectified the issues … by back-paying employees a total of approximately $80,000, and adjusting rates of pay moving forward”, the company was declared bankrupt and currently owes $500,000 to approximately 20 owner drivers and 40 employees.

The TWU told the inquiry they wrote to Michael Polito – Principal Manager of Health and Safety with SMC – in July 2017 “to ensure all transport operators working on the WestConnex project were compliant with their various legislative obligations.”

“[The] TWU asked the SMC to facilitate audits of all transport contractors engaged on the WestConnex project (including those engaged directly by SMC and those sub-contracted down the chain),” they submitted to the Inquiry.

The TWU allege that SMC said: “As you would appreciate all contracts and construction sites are under the care and control of our respective contractors and as such your enquiries should be directed to the individual contractors involved”.

The TWU wrote: “Given the shocking road toll from heavy vehicle accidents New South Wales has seen this year along … it is critical when it comes to safety all possible efforts are made by all players along the road to ensure compliance.”

The TWU also challenged the NSW government’s claims that 10,000 jobs would be created for NSW workers through the WestConnex project at the Inquiry.

TWU received reports “that a number of companies contracted to the WestConnex project have sub-contracted to interstate vehicles.” On visiting WestConnex project sites, TWU told the Inquiry they found “evidence of vehicles registered in Victoria and South Australia working on the WestConnex project.”

“[T]he engagement of interstate trucks means local jobs are being taken away from local workers,” TWU’s written submission said. “[T]his also presents, in the TWU’s view, a safety risk given that the vehicles in question are not registered to work on New South Wales roads.”