Pacific National wages war on locomotive drivers

The largest rail freight company in Australia is waging an all-out assault on the wages and conditions of its locomotive drivers in Victoria.

Negotiations with the union, the Rail, Tram and Bus Union (RTBU), were initiated by Pacific National’s Rural and Bulk (R&B) division in April last year, even though the drivers’ enterprise agreement was not to expire until December 2016.

The company began bargaining early to exploit a tactical advantage gained after a round of forced redundancies and changes to rostering practices left the workforce demoralised. PN’s “blank line” rostering system means that workers are not rostered for set hours each week. Instead, they receive orders to work via text message.

Across the rail freight industry, workers have been under sustained attack for years. Competition in the industry has ratcheted up since the privatisation of Queensland Rail (now Aurizon) in 2010. Last year, Aurizon snatched PN’s contract to haul 8.7 million tonnes of coal annually from the Hunter Valley. More than 100 train drivers were retrenched by PN in NSW.

PN changed hands last year when its parent company, Asciano, was sold for $9 billion. It is now owned by an international consortium of investors. The sale was part of a complex deal involving Brookfields, a Canadian firm that already owns most rail line in WA, and Qube, a logistics company with stakes in port and rail.

Rail freight is a major industry in Australia, with rail accounting for around half of all freight movements. But prices of bulk commodities, particularly iron ore and coal, have slumped globally. For Australian workers, this carve-up makes their lives even more uncertain as these corporate giants seek to maintain the rates of profit that the boom period made possible.

This is evident in Victoria, where PN is seeking pay cuts of up to $10 an hour. The current hourly rate for experienced drivers is $52.74. This  is an aggregate wage incorporating shift penalties, weekend penalties and various allowances. PN is also seeking to cut guaranteed hours from 40 to 38 a week.

It wants to remove all penalties, shift loadings and annual leave loading from the aggregate wage. The union has calculated that this would reduce the wage to $42.58 an hour. The company also wants to implement multiple sign on and off locations across Victoria. In the north of Victoria this could mean a variability of as much as 166km. The company proposes that travel time to and from these locations be unpaid and no allowances be paid for workers’ use of their own vehicles.

The RTBU is also concerned about the use of labour hire to undermine wages and conditions. PN R&B has been using the Western Australian labour hire firm Railtrain to increase the “flexibility” of the workforce. It has recruited a number of people in Victoria in order to train them as driver’s assistants. Much of the training is unpaid, with participants travelling to Geelong from all over the country just for the promise of a job opportunity.

The RTBU has responded to PN’s attacks with industrial action. The first action is a ban on training labour hire workers, which began on March 22 and continues indefinitely. The union has also organised work stoppages.