Infratil puts the boot into low-paid bus drivers

Last Friday I joined a protest by Auckland bus drivers locked out by their employer, the Infratil-owned NZ Bus company.

It was a lively, spirited protest by some 400 drivers and supporters. Many are from the Pacific and an entertaining feast of singing and dancing accompanied open defiance of the company’s best endeavour to starve these workers into submission.

Earlier in the week the drivers had issued a work-to-rule notice saying they would not drive buses with faults, buses without radio telephones and wouldn’t break the speed limit when faced with tight timetables. They took this action after a full five months of bargaining.

It’s not surprising they want a better deal. These drivers have a starting rate of just $14.05 an hour and can be rostered anywhere between 4.30am and 1am the following morning. Their shifts will often be split leaving them with four hours unpaid work in the middle of day and they can be away from home for up to 15 hours at a time. They don’t get regular morning or afternoon tea breaks and can be rostered up to 5 ½ hours without a break.

When the NZ Bus drivers announced the work-to-rule to achieve the same as other bus drivers in Auckland the company response was to lock them out. No work till they agree to the company’s terms.

This is just the latest in a series of lockouts of workers around the country as employers go on the offensive against workers. Lockouts were once a rare event but have recently become commonplace. In the last two weeks companies have closed the door to workers at Bridgeman Concrete in Auckland and Open Country Cheese at Waharoa and at a number of smaller worksites around the country. These employers have had it so good for so long they aren’t used to workers fighting back. They are reacting with high-handed arrogance and aggression when Oliver Twist comes back for another ladle of gruel.

A worker fightback is long overdue. One of the locked-out bus drivers told how he has been a bus driver for 30 years. In 1982 he was paid $7 an hour when this was the median wage in New Zealand. By the late 1980s, when allowances were included he was earning $15 an hour. Now in 2009 he is on just $16 an hour with minimal allowances. The median wage in the meantime has risen to $18.70 (June 2008) but if his wage from 1982 had kept pace with inflation he would now be earning $21.66 an hour. Over the 30 years he has been driving the median wage has dropped in real terms by 15.8% while the purchasing power of his pay has decreased by no less than 35.4%. In other words all low and middle-income workers have gone backwards but these drivers have gone backwards much further than most.

On Infratil’s website there is the usual corporate spin about how visionary they are and how they invest in people. They should mention this applies only to director and senior management salaries – certainly not their bus drivers.

Much more insightful though is the bald statement “Infratil’s primary goal is to provide its shareholders with a consistent return of 20% per annum over the long term.” So there you have it. Lowly paid workers are being locked out so Infratil can keep passing fat cheques to its shareholders.

One might think the company would consider Auckland commuters before locking out the drivers but this doesn’t seem to bother them. They are running a monopoly on most bus services so they can afford to ignore public sentiment which seems to be firming up behind the drivers. People are asking why this very profitable corporation can’t pay the same rates as other Auckland bus companies.

Infratil claims the problem is strike action by the union and hopes the public will blame the drivers. It’s all spin – the workers are locked out by a resource-rich corporation which puts profits before people – either employees or the public. Families on low rates of pay don’t have the financial resources to sustain a longer-term lockout and this is what the company is counting on.

NZ Bus gets huge subsidies from Auckland ratepayers in a win-win deal for Infratil. On the profitable routes they get to keep all the profits while the ratepayer makes up any loss on routes which are not profitable. And it’s not chickenfeed. Auckland ratepayers give them over $58 million every year.

NZ Bus is a good example of why essential services such as public transport should be in public hands where they can be run more cheaply, more efficiently and reliably with better pay and conditions for those who do the work.