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Pay, conditions top concerns

Ana Madigibuli
Saturday, October 28, 2017

POOR working conditions, minimum wage rate, eTicketing issues, ill treatment and lack of respect for drivers' roles are some of the reasons why more than 200 drivers have signed up with the Transport Workers Union this month alone.

These issues that have affected drivers for years has forced them to make this bold stand as they start the fight for their rights.

Transport Workers Union general secretary Kamlesh Kumar said in 2000 the union had tried to get bus industry workers on board to be part of the movement, but they had little success.

"In 2013 and 2014 we had some success in getting members and it was quite a mammoth task at that time to rope in these drivers because they had mixed reactions," Mr Kumar said.

"We renewed our terms in the beginning of the year and we found great interest from bus industry workers. In the past couple of months membership accelerated and it's now in its full phase.

"It's not easy meeting all of them (drivers) and to speak to them, but since this morning (Tuesday this week) I met more than 20 drivers and each driver is interested to join.

"I think that we (union) did not do enough during that time and our resources were limited," Mr Kumar said when askedwhy drivers were reluctant to join the union in 2000.

He said fear would probably be one of the reasons why drivers didn't want to join the union too and that still existed today.

"They (drivers) openly say they are finding it hard to make ends meet with the kind of income they were receiving with cost of living being high now," he said.

"We have other workers under the union and when we compare their working conditions with the bus industry workers, I would just use the word pathetic to describe the conditions.

"These drivers work with great responsibility and some of them say they transport about 700 to 800 passengers in a day, mostly breadwinners in their individual homes.

"They have working condition cases where buses are not up to standard, there are defects in the buses, they have to wake up early in the morning and drive without food and there are no arrangements for meal allowances and sometimes when they do eat they often just stand and eat quickly to continue work again."

He said the union would fight for the workers wage conditions.

"Working for $3.45 an hour is just little over the minimum wage rate that the country has set for unskilled workers. We see that these workers are highly skilled with great responsibilities and experience in transporting so many people,' he said.

"I know for a fact that some of the drivers have left their old jobs and have gone to new employers within the bus industry. Some bus operators are offering drivers an increase in wages.

"This issue is not new it's been happening for some time and they (drivers) are joining the union in big numbers with some employers still reluctant when their drivers join the union.

"We have taken these matters to the Employment Tribunal and have received orders against some of the employers without naming them.

"We have found that these employers have been trying to harass workers into resigning from the union or withdrawing under false promises. Today I found that one of the fleet managers in one of the bus companies in Suva has told a driver that if he doesn't resign from the union, they will terminate his employment."

He said on the overtime issue, some bus drivers were not paid.

"Some are paid overtime, but not in all the companies," Mr Kumar said. Some companies pay a flat rate of $5 for an overtime hour and we want it to be standardised on time and a half, double time with proper meal allowances.

"They need to be paid for breakfast allowance for early morning starts and they need to have adequate breaks because continuous driving can become a safety issue.

"Initially when we started talking they talked about a strike and it's the right of the worker to do so, but we do not encourage that. We believe in communication between the employers and operators so we are able to look after the interest of the common people.

"Workers have the right to be part of the union, they have the right to collective bargaining which is protected by the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention and we will take up each case we receive with the appropriate authorities."

He said they would take up cases to the Employment Tribunal and the court because the law was clear on employers not interfering with the rights of the workers.

He said the union would like to see wages increased to $7 or $7.50 an hour as normal pay with meal allowances, overtime and double time included.

"When you have happy workers you will definitely have a happy industry and we want to see the employers make money because when they don't make money they won't have workers," he said.

"On eticketing, we don't have any problems with the system, its principle and its production. The problem we raise about it is the teething problems especially on how the machine operates," he said.

"I spoke to one bus driver in Lautoka who said a passenger boarded the bus and demanded a ticket, but when the ticket was printed it was blank. The passenger started blaming the driver and he threw a punch at the driver and threw a punch at the machine and in this incident the driver got hurt.

"He went to his boss and his boss said for him to go to the police. He went to the police and the police took him to the hospital where he was given three days sick sheet and when he later returned to work he was terminated. He has approached the union with this matter and we are going to fight his case because it's so unfair.

"This system has been introduced by the government of the day with the operators involved, but at the end of the day it's the drivers who deal with frustrated passengers and handle machines."

Former governor of the Reserve Bank of Fiji Savenaca Narube in his article "Poor carry the cost" published last Saturday in this newspaper said the biggest impact of the eTicketing scheme would be on the poor and unemployed.

Mr Narube said poor families gave Vodafone their money up-front when they didn't even have enough to feed their families daily.

In comparing the eTicketing system to banking system Mr Narube said the four significant differences of eticketing from normal banking was compulsory, people had no choice but to deposit cash with the sole service provider, no interest was earned from deposits and deposits could be lost if the cards were stolen or misplaced.

Fiji Bus Operators Association president Richard Lal earlier this month said there would be some instability with drivers in terms of the numbers either increasing or decreasing in the industry, particularly with the introduction of the eTicketing system.

"We cannot quantify the number or percentage of drivers at this time and it is in the industry's interest to have a higher supply than demand, that way we won't have shortage of drivers. There is some work in progress right now and there is certain regulation that needs to be changed in the bus industry."

Nasese Bus Co. Ltd manager Ricki Kumar said he didn't have any problems especially with the implementation of the new eTicketing system.

Mr Kumar said his drivers didn't leave the company and he employed about 50 bus drivers.

Island Buses Ltd director Virendra Kewal said he wasn't aware if his drivers had recently joined the union.

"I think my drivers are very comfortable because we pay them well and I don't think pay is an issue," he said.

Mr Kewal said in order to get experienced drivers, companies needed to pay well.

"We still maintain the same number of drivers and we are still looking for more drivers. If we have any issue we talk about it and solve our problems amicably," he said.

A bus operator in Suva who wished not to be named said some drivers had resigned from his business with some being poached by other bus companies.

Narere Buses Ltd director Justin Ravindra said they haven't had any change in bus drivers and they have continued to retain their drivers' prior to the introduction of the eTicketing system.

Recently-appointed independent Bus Fare Review committee chairman Joel Abraham said they would undertake a review of fares with all elements that had a cost and service component to be considered.

Mr Kumar said the immediate focus was only on the adequacy of the bus fares in place and that their work would start as soon as next week.

Vodafone Fiji hadn't responded to questions sent to them on Tuesday about eTicketing and how the income from it was shared when this edition went to press on Thursday.








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