There’s a battle being fought by the Australian Trucking Association to open up Australian highways to 457 visa guest workers – something that will help keep truckies’ wages down, the goods in our supermarkets cheap and perhaps thwart the Transport Workers’ Union campaign for greater safety.

But it seems the guest workers with developing-nation driving experience are already pushing rigs around Australia. And given the shocking statistics – 97 deaths from heavy vehicle accidents in NSW alone last year – one might wonder if they’re any worse than the locals anyway.

There is a shortage of truck drivers in Australia and it’s about to get worse, particularly in long haul, with freight movements expected to double by 2020. Therefore, all things being equal in a free market, truckies’ wages should be rising sharply. They’re not.

Such are the margins and the pressure brought to bear by the retail duopoly, trucking companies live in fear of losing their main contracts if they try to increase prices.

Enter the promise of 457 visas. As this 2006 Toll Holdings newsletter shows, the ATA is trying to get truck driving reclassified from “semi-skilled” to “skilled” to qualify for 457s, but guest workers are already being allowed in under special “regional” skills requirements. Writes Toll:

DIMIA are allowing some sponsorship of overseas drivers for regional areas. For this to happen, the driver must be employed directly by a regional office, with the employer gaining approval from the regional certifying body.

There are various ways of sponsoring overseas candidates but the most common is the 457 Visa which allows the worker to stay in Australia for four years. After four years, workers normally apply for permanent residency. This can be an excellent way to recruit for areas where Toll cannot compete in remuneration with other companies in the area, for instance central Queensland where Toll loses many drivers to the mining industry.

But the TWU is concerned about more devious and less safe methods. Its researchers have corresponded with a Chinese labor recruitment firm which has advised it can supply truck drivers here on section 442 trainee rates of $13.47 an hour. The claim is that the trainee visas are good for three months, after which you try for 457s or just ship in another load of cheap drivers.

If you’ve ever driven on China’s roads and watched the trucks at play, you’ll know that is a frightening suggestion.

The TWU is attempting to push responsibility for heavy vehicle safety further up the logistics chain to where the power resides – with Woolworths, Coles and, to a lesser extent, Metcash. The only chance of reducing the death toll is if they agree to and enforce “safe wages” and conditions on the contractors they routinely squeeze.

Keeping the rigs running faster, longer on shrinking margins might keep the price of your groceries down, but it also kills people. Companies like BHP that take safety seriously these days wouldn’t countenance their mine contractors behaving the way the general trucking industry does.

It’s a good argument for flying, not driving.

Peter Fray

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