The Spinoff's Maria Slade looks at a new study from which the evidence suggests the trucking industry is in a race to the bottom

The Spinoff's Maria Slade looks at a new study from which the evidence suggests the trucking industry is in a race to the bottom
Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images. (Photo shows trucks on the Great Western Highway, Australia in 2007.

By Maria Slade, The Spinoff*

It took AUT researcher Dr Clare Tedestedt George several days to recover from her 15-hour interview with a truck driver.

The conversation lasted that long because she was riding with him as he did his overnight run delivering bread to supermarkets, and had no way of leaving. “So I stayed with him for the whole route. And it was excellent, because I heard everything.”

Aside from getting out of the truck to load and unload 100kg pallets of bread the driver did not stop from 10.30pm, when George met him at the truck depot, until 9.30 the next morning – not to eat or drink, nor go to the bathroom. “They don’t drink anything because they don’t have time to stop and go to the toilet,” she says.

“I was feeling really nauseous and unwell, because I can’t go that long without water and without stopping.”

When the driver finally finished at 2pm he was going home to complete paperwork and prepare to do it all again that night.

The shift left George exhausted and ill from the vibration of the truck, yet this was a typical day in an industry where drivers regularly work 70 to 90-hour weeks.

George’s recently completed PhD thesis on the occupational safety, health and well-being of truck drivers paints a grim picture of a sector in a race for the bottom. Despite New Zealand’s heavy reliance on road freight and the Road Transport Forum’s estimate that we are short 4000 skilled drivers, the industry is moving inexorably towards using contract owner-drivers competing for low hourly pay. In a parallel trend, many believe an exploited migrant workforce is further driving down rates.

George interviewed 45 industry participants, including 20 drivers. They told her that speeding to keep up with tight schedules, driving longer than their legal limit and falsifying log books are standard practice, with drivers often pressured to break the law to get the job done. Surviving on roadside ‘pie and a can’ deals and peeing into a bottle because they can’t afford to stop takes a heavy toll on their health, while owner-drivers are burdened with crushing debt and contract arrangements that bind them as de facto employees without any of the benefits.

Meanwhile the numbers of deaths and injuries from crashes involving heavy vehicles remain stubbornly high. After reaching a low of 47 fatalities and 744 people injured in 2013 the statistics are on the rise again, with 75 deaths and 850 injury victims in 2016.


George quotes the drivers throughout her thesis. “I’ve been working all night,” one says. “Currently 25 and a half hours and counting with only 15 to 20 minutes sleep. By the time I knock off today and get to bed, it will be the second time this week going 30-plus hours with next to no sleep.”

She heard about owner-drivers at risk of losing everything. “We picked him up on the side of the road; he was on the verge of committing suicide, half a million dollars in debt, his parent’s property on the line. Four months with (an unidentified company) where he is instructed to break the law twice, refuses twice and gets terminated,” an industry participant told her.

At least two prominent transport companies are known for housing migrant workers behind high fences and locked gates, she learned. “Mostly they are Fijian Indians and they are given accommodation on the yards, though they pay rent. They keep them for two years and nine months and then send them back,” one driver said.

George’s study is the first to look at the structural factors underlying these poor practices. One of the challenges is that the trucking industry crosses disciplines from employment relations to road safety, and no one agency oversees the complex sector, she says.

“Why are truck drivers so fatigued, why are they speeding?” she asks. “No logical person would drive when they’re that exhausted, so what’s the decision-making process behind these dangerous acts?”

What she found was a highly competitive industry where tight margins and low pay place intense time pressure on drivers. Managers who attempt to prioritise health and safety are conflicted by the need to ensure the survival of the firm. While it’s difficult to get accurate figures, George says anecdotally the indication is that 70% of the sector are now owner-drivers who do what they can to stay afloat. On top of it all bad practices are tolerated, with a prevailing attitude that it’s part of the job and those who can’t stand the heat should get out of the cab.

The conundrum is, if it’s so competitive why is there a driver shortage? The industry avoids paying drivers more by bringing in migrant workers, her informants said.

“You get migrants that are coming from countries where the pay rates are really low so to work for $18 an hour is like hitting the jackpot for them and of course they will work for as many hours as they can,” one interviewee said.

The industry was described as “cutthroat”. “The current thing among the corporates is they’ll say to the existing contract (driver), ‘we expect you to take 10 to 20% off it or we’ll put it out to tender,” another said.

Despite a recent crackdown on rogue trucking firms announced by the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA), lack of enforcement is a significant problem, George says. Some drivers have one log book to record their actual driving hours, which is what they’re paid on, and a second to show law enforcement agencies. The chances of getting caught out are “practically zero”, interviewees told her.

They described managers regularly asking drivers to break the law in order to get the job done. “I was forced to take a load and was then caught by the cops for being overweight. I was fined $1100 and had to pay it myself because ultimately it was my responsibility,” one owner-driver said.

There is little difference between being a contractor and an employee, with owner-drivers even having to paint their trucks at their own expense in the colours of the company they’re working for, George says.

There were cameras in the cab of her 15-hour driver’s truck and his movements were monitored. “Just prior to us meeting the company had analysed his GPS data and realised that he’d made the route more efficient, and they rewrote his cost model based on this new information.

“As a contractor you would think he would have the ability to negotiate… But there was no way he could say no to this.”

Peter Gallagher runs Prodrive, New Zealand’s only advocacy body for contract drivers. Clare George’s research is right on point, he says. “It’s the dirty little secret of the New Zealand transport game.”

He is representing half a dozen drivers right now who are enduring the conditions she describes, he says. One contractor who operates four vehicles in Wellington had a driver write him a resignation note on the back of a bread packet after a month of  doing 16-hour days, and he’s on the verge of losing another. The contractor himself is working up to 20 hours a day. “This is what they have to do… to not run the risk of termination, because they are in what can only be called contracts for servitude.”

Migrant workers are not necessarily willing to work for lower rates, but they aren’t familiar with New Zealand law and believe the rosy picture that’s put to them, he says. In the last 10 years he’s brought over 50 cases against companies with the assistance of a senior partner at law firm Simpson Grierson. Nothing will change until the regulators ensure adequate protections for people now known as dependent contractors’, Gallagher says.

Nick Leggett, chief executive of the Road Transport Forum which represents road freight operators, says there were “elements of surprise” in George’s research. “We’re obviously going to be keen to look at some of the detail.”

Safety and compliance have always been paramount for the forum, he says.

“If you look at the enforcement issues that NZTA are currently grappling with you’d have to say there isn’t uniform enforcement across different aspects of the industry. Probably we are in for a period of catch up there.”

Coming technologies such as the digitisation of log books will help, he says.

George spent months establishing a rapport with the drivers she interviewed for her thesis. “Their trucks are like their homes, I had to do a lot of groundwork before being let into their space,” she says.

Despite striving to maintain academic neutrality some of the interviews brought her to tears.

On one occasion she was due to talk to a 54-year-old driver when his wife turned up. He had lost consciousness behind the wheel and died just before the interview. “She acknowledged the fact his lifestyle meant he wasn’t able to eat properly, he never got enough exercise. She’s very angry about it.

“It just breaks your heart.”

*This article first ran on The Spinoff here and is used with permission. Maria Slade is The Spinoff's Business Editor.

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If only the insatiably greedy trucking lobby hadn't destroyed any hope of a viable rail freight system.

Raiways staff and management can also take some of the blame for that.It was inefficient big time.

Nick Leggett, chief executive of the Road Transport Forum which represents road freight operators, says there were “elements of surprise” in George’s research. “We’re obviously going to be keen to look at some of the detail.”

=Asleep at the wheel!

If he is "surprised" then he is fibbing


The surprise to him is that someone talked. The detail will be finding the traitorous SOBs and seeing them off.

The whole 'contract' thing needs to be eliminated. Not just fiddled with - eliminated. Yes. There will be howls of pain about such a change, but you can't change it without changing it.
And yes cost's the industry and our use of it will change as a result. Let that happen.
There is a place for independent contractors, but the law can be changed so that if it's not completely independent, then the 'employer' bears the responsibility.
And another thing. Camps where the foreign workers are kept !!! I know a lot of this happens with pacific workers in horticulture on contracts are kept and overcharged, but it's new to me that it happened to drivers. This country needs to get it's act together and get it's reputation back.

Not unusual to see big trucks sticking in the fast RHS lane all the way from Bombay Hill to North Shore to avoid changing lanes!

The Fast RHS lane? In what universe. The far left lane is usually empty.. its much faster.

Use and abuse of contracted staff is standard issue in many industries, couriers, dairyfarming and fruit picking to name a few. All designed to pay as little as possible while sheeting all statutory and other responsibilities onto someone else whether they know it or not.

Doesn't happen for well paid staff. Try lawyers and accountants and top level computer staff.
It does apply to the lower paid. If you want the best value for money truck you buy it from overseas. Same applies to the drivers so we get 3rd world pay and 3rd world work practices. Once you treat people as you treat goods then the business makes the profit and the person suffers. Even if the immigrant is happy to be exploited it is still wrong because it sets the standard for the entire industry.

Surely the Labour party will help these abused Labourers by...


bringing in more low wage mass immigration to compete with them.

Adjusting a log book to drive extra hours needs to incur a very big fine. Maybe $100k or more. An equally big fine should also apply to any third party company that actively encouraged the practise.

Excellent.. so no truck drivers at all then? I hope you can balance a pallet of rice on your bicycle.

Well it shouldn't make a difference to those that don't deliberately drive too many hours. Are you saying that is all of them?

Not all, but enough that if they all quit, or got fined 100k you'd find empty shelves at supermarkets.

It's a vast majority. You might say pandemic in the industry. The ones who don't fudge logs or skip rest stops are few and far between.

Might pay to talk to truckies that deliver to the major supermarkets - they all have GPS trackers and adhere to very strict standards as a condition of contract.

I suspect that this article written on the basis of one truck trip has quite irrationally been extended to the industry without further research on the many very well run trucking operations that have been around for years.

This industry will always have bottom feeders trying to make a buck in a difficult industry wth low costs of entry. Any dealer will sell you a fully financed new rig with no $ down - and then in the absence of major contracts they are forced to take what they can get from customers who are not prepared to pay for the true costs of service.

Only the trucking industry? Capitalism itself is eventually a race to the bottom, this is just the stage of it we are in.

Capitalism may be bad in the long run but so far it has been great. The speed with which it is lifting people out of abject poverty is unequalled and astonishing. Its ability to destroy resources is not unique to capitalism. It wasn't capitalism that introduced goats to the sahara grasslands a few thousand years ago.

Most things are "pretty good" until the long run, capitalism has reached the long run, it is rapidly turning stale. Not sure what bearing this has on the Sahara thousands of years ago.

Iv'e heard two arguments about the future failure of capitalism. One is it breeds monopolies so when I define capitalism as competition it dies just as the board game ends. The other argument is the very efficiency means it utilises resources until they are all used up. That ecological disaster has been seen in the past (Sahara was my example but you could use Easter Island when their last tree was cut down) in many non-Capitalistic societies. As Steven Pinker has written things have got a dramatically better in capitalist countries ever since the industrial revolution started 250 years ago.

So what happens when when we outgrow our planet, as we are doing right now? Actually, arguing the toss about whether this economic system is better than that, is like arguing what flavour sausages should you cook on the fire that is burning the house down.
Capitalism is as done as anything else that requires constant growth to work. I do not say that capitalism is only thing that won't work in the times ahead of us, but one thing we absolutely must come to terms with is that really cannot continue with growth, either in population numbers or in use of resources. It just happens that capitalism is the system most familiar to us here.
De-growing does not necessarily mean that individual pursuits go out the window, entirely, but even the most ardent capitalist must surely see, that for the most part the pursuit of excess has to go, and that significant change will require a large measure of co-operation among humans.
Your argument about how much better people do under capitalism is not challenged especially, the problem is, we cannot continue to take more and more in an effort to maintain a particular economic system over another.

That's not actually correct. It's only correct if you count the people lifted out of poverty in the western world. Include most of Africa and other developing nations, where poverty rates are increasing, and capitalism is not the silver bullet it's made out to be.

So where are they going to find the extra 1000's of drivers needed when working hours do start getting policed? It's going to be very inflationary as transport costs rise greatly.

...God forbid wages must increase.

Don't you worry, they'll find the drivers if they increase wages.
Ya know, how the labour market is meant to work..

Nah, they just need to keep the practice going till Elon releases his magic electric self driving truck... then it will be a race to the bottom on maintainence..

Almost zero unemployment at the moment (pretty much only unemployables left without jobs). Tonnes more kiwis emigrating since labour came to power, where are we going to find these additional workers needed? Might we need to *gasp* bring in more migrants? Even though NZF and Labour promised to reduce their numbers from current 60-70000 down to 10000 and 20000-30000 respectively (but haven't actually done a thing - too bad about resulting housing squeeze eh?).

I agree that 'unemployment' is low. But it's not a great argument.
The employment rate is a function of employed persons and labour market participation.
Further an employed person is classified as anyone who has worked or volunteered for at least one hour in the previous week.

Broad participation rate is around 80% in New Zealand, weighted substantially by the 25-55 male cohort. So there is actually potential for a substantial amount of absorption through the participation channel. Much like we see in the case of Australia where a key adjustment mechanism is the participation rate.
The reason we don't see much response from this channel currently is because of the fact that wages don't appear to notably react to changes in demand in the labour market (the result of a reliance in exogenous supply to fill labour gaps).

One in eight are looking for more work. You are hard defining them as 'unemployables'.

25% of Kiwis born abroad. That means 20% more truck drivers needed than if NZ had kept immigration rate as per Japan, South Korea and China.

NZF's 10,000 imposible since more than that many are partners of NZ citizens.
Under Labour permanent residency has dropped from 50k to 37k but because of a change made by National. And maybe NZ is less appealing to ambitious to foreigners as our reputation for exploitation spreads. Labour are still granting visas for 'skilled' workers such as chefs, bakers and truck-drivers.

We only hear about net migration from the mainstream media but it looks like you've Foyled them. Net migration does not record the fact that Kiwis being replaced by foreigners. More often than not people that don't want to integrate. I can't stand in line at the shops without hearing someone yelling mandarin. The ethnic suburbs are established. Next step ethnic political parties. Diversity = division.

By that logic we should bring back slavery as we can get more, they'll work longer hours and result in lower cost goods. That's the important stuff covered. Brilliant!

But hey this is competition, this is efficiency, this is supply and demand, innovation, individual initiative and freedom. Capitalism at its finest. This is the "economic" system and it's great.

This is a reflection of humanity/society and its illness. Anybody who doesn't see a problem with this and the environment that literally encourages it is quite frankly a psychopath. Fines and "market forces" don't solve this problem.

Really good article. Well done.

Digital logbook have been in use in Europe for 20 years FFS. how hard is it to mandate them?

In Australia they have a say "Without Trucks Australia Stops"
In Auckland,when trucks stopped Auckland stops

Horrifying and depressing - Road Transport Forum is an irrelevance in this space - a lobby group for the very owners who engage the contract drivers. Where is this "pro-active" Government on this issue?

Pretty much every industry is like this.

Casual hours, no holiday pay, travel at own expense (as part of work, not just to get to work) and so on.

High immigration does this.

High low paid immigration.

Well actually, high immigration of low skilled people.

We are told we're bringing in scientists, teachers, construction experts. When we're really bringing in bakers, baristas, restaurant workers...

getting the amount of woman drivers over 60% will fix this

That's a whole lot of drivers working 10am - 2pm between the school run, could probably get 3 deliveries across Akl done in a day. And yes I own a logistics company

New Zealand INC has a virtually infinite worldwide supply of people who are willing to be exploited in order that they can improve the lives of their family. If we all choose to look the other way.Then we reap what we sow.

Racing to the bottom is correct.

Just got a message from a good friend, he started at 4:30am this morning, at 4:30pm he is sitting in the central North Island waiting for paperwork to come through so he can load then make his was back to South Auckland this evening. Hopes to be parked up by 8pm. That's pushing a 16 hour day and he would have fudged his log book for breaks to coincide with drop offs so 5 minutes filling up with diesel would have been the only time he took a breather today

He'll be back behind the at 4:30am tomorrow morning.

All from someone who will start collecting the pension 3 years.

Mainfreight, Linfox and Toll would have to be high users of lowpaid immigrant workers