Joe Hendren

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Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Hail to the bus driver

Really pleased to read in the Press yesterday that Environment Canterbury and the bus companies have renegotiated bus service contracts so they can provide staff with pay rises of about $2 an hour. The deal is very welcome and makes a stark contrast with the ideologically driven deregulation of the Christchurch Transport Board in the early 1990s.

ECan is 'co-funding'” the cost of the deal with Land Transport New Zealand. In Auckland bus drivers are set to get a fair pay increase too - but they had to go on strike twice to get it.

The Christchurch deal is in response to a chronic shortage of bus drivers, currently forcing bus companies to cancel between four and forty trips per day. This demonstrates the destructive and counterproductive effects of both low wages and deregulation. Red Bus pays $13.14 to fully qualified collective agreement staff, while Leopard pays $13.13. Every few years, drivers must update their licences at their own expense (Press 16/4/05).

Red Bus driver "Lucy" says drivers have to work 70 hours a week over six days to make a decent living from driving. "We quickly become exhausted, we rarely see or have time with our families and finally have no choice but to leave the industry completely shattered," she told the Press (16/4/05). Bus companies ban their drivers from taking to the media, so even when they are welcoming the latest deal as "excellent news", they need to use fake names.

Why has there been so little attention given to the reasons why this situation came about? To my mind, the dismal pay levels of Christchurch and Auckland bus drivers is a logical consequence of a narrow minded policy of contracting out bus services to the lowest bidder.

As Amalgamated Workers' Union secretary Calvin Fisher says - the competitive tender process has backfired on the public (Press, 16/4/05). "The position is that ever since public transport has been given to regional councils, all that's happened is that (the services) are contracted out on a tender basis, and that's driven down wages," he says. In 1992, following deregulation, patronage figures sank to an all time low of 6.8 million for the year and the bus system of Christchurch was dangerously close to collapsing altogether.

Christchurch Buses - 'A Cautionary Fable'
In 1990, the citizens of the Peoples Republic of Christchurch were very happy. The Christchurch Transport Board, publicly owned by the people, had just replaced its aging fleet of buses with brand new MAN buses. The citizens cheered. But in 1991 an evil scurge of 'deregulation' came from the north, led by city councillor Pansy Wong (now a National MP) and a National Government. The bus company was expected to be privatised, and each of the routes contracted out to whoever could give the council the cheapest price. It was written that the council must be cheapskates, and consider nothing else, said the new right black magic spellbook. While the council buses remained in public ownership, the CTB was turned into a 'Council Controlled Trading Organisation' (similar to an SOE).

Following the scurge of deregulation, new bus companies came to town, in the oldest, cheapest noisiest buses they could find. Even the schoolkiddies (like me), used to riding in old buses, were appalled at the old bangers now on Christchurch streets.

One day citizens were travelling to work in a nice new comfortable MAN bus, and now they were riding in the buses Auckland had just got rid of, buses that were well over 15 years old (and to make matters worse for Cantabs they were still in Auck'’er yellow). Where have our new buses gone cried the Cantabrians? The market is at work was the reply. The citizens were not happy.

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