Commentary,  COVID,  Industry & Sector,  Labour Standards

Real Truckers Have Real Issues That Could be Solved With Regulation, Investment, and Unions

Despite claims of organizers, the protests and blockades in Ottawa and at several of Canada’s border crossings are not really about issues faced by working truck drivers. Rather, they are part of an organized effort to overturn Canada’s public health rules – and, for some of the organizers, Canada’s elected government. But the references to “hard-working truckers” arising from the protests should spark a more genuine examination of the challenges truckers face in their jobs, and how their working lives could be improved. In this column, originally published in the Toronto Star, our Director Jim Stanford discusses several of the most pressing challenges facing real truckers: including low pay, misclassification, long hours, and poor safety enforcement. Those problems could be addressed through stronger regulations (including sector-wide standards on wages, wait times, and working hours), public investment in roadside facilities, and collective bargaining.

Let’s Talk About the Real Problems Facing Truck Drivers

By Jim Stanford

It is now well-documented that the “truckers protest” in Ottawa has little to do with trucking. Most vehicles in the convoy were not trucks. Most people at the protest are not truckers. And most of the organizers’ demands (from opposing all COVID health restrictions to removing the elected government of Canada) have nothing to do with trucking.

Meanwhile, actual truckers are going about their business – while complying with the dozens of government rules that regulate their industry every day. Requiring double vaccination to cross the Canada-U.S. border without quarantine is just one of those rules. Industry experts say 90% of truckers are vaccinated (roughly the same as the rest of us).

The nebulous connection between trucking and this protest has not stopped right-wing politicians from invoking the rugged image of “hard-working truckers” as a convenient prop for their flirtation with extremism. Erin O’Toole and Jason Kenney spoke glowingly about the dedication and bravery of drivers (it didn’t save O’Toole, and probably won’t save Kenney). Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe was especially shameless: issuing a phony “thank-you letter” to truckers simply as a gimmick to cancel more COVID restrictions, despite Saskatchewan having one of the worst COVID hospitalization rates in the country.

Real truck drivers face many challenges. They are treated unfairly by employers, shippers, and governments. Even if the cross-border vaccine mandate was eliminated tomorrow (it won’t be), all those challenges would remain. Perhaps all this attention on truckers will translate into awareness and concern for the exploitation they experience every day. But don’t wait for conservative politicians to do anything about it.

There are over 200,000 freight truck drivers in Canada. Base wages are low: around $25 per hour. But hours are long (20% above the national average), and conditions are hard. The occupational category including truckers (along with other heavy equipment operators) experiences 25,000 lost-time injury claims and over 100 fatalities per year – more than any other occupation. Back problems, fatigue, family stress, and loneliness make the job all the harder.

If politicians really wanted to help, there are obvious ways to reform the industry so truckers could earn a decent living, in safe and tolerable conditions:

Safety: In theory, driving hours are capped by regulations to limit fatigue – but the rules are weakly enforced, and only apply to heavy, long-haul work (not regional and delivery trucks). Safety rules should be more comprehensive and better enforced. Truckers need access to better training, and confidential reprisal-free representation when facing dangerous situations.

Misclassification: Trucking was a ‘gig’ industry long before Uber. Shippers or brokers require owner-operators to cover all capital and operating expenses, sometimes manipulating truckers’ true status. After those costs, payments per load may not even meet the minimum wage. Owner-operators should be covered by the same standards that apply to waged employees (including minimum wage, maximum hours, CPP, and more). Crucially, minimum shipping rates must be set at levels that can validate those standards.

Rest stops: For years truckers have asked for more and better places to safely park for rest breaks and overnight stops: with better facilities, amenities, and anti-theft monitoring. Even bathrooms are hard to find – a particular problem for women drivers (who could solve the industry’s labour shortage if they were provided respectful working conditions).

Surveillance: Zealots fretting about government vaccine mandates are strangely silent about the nefarious ways employers use electronic monitoring and surveillance to micro-manage drivers’ performance. Misuse of GPS systems, in-cab cameras, and time monitoring by employers should be prohibited with strong privacy and job security rights.

Sector standards: The best way to stop the race to the bottom in truckers’ wages and conditions is by establishing decent, safe standards that apply to whole segments of the industry – creating a level playing field that all competitors must respect. A good example is the system used in B.C. to efficiently regulate trucking at the province’s seaports.

These reforms would concretely improve the lives of real truckers. But they require regulations, public investment, and unions – all things conservatives hate. When work and compensation are at stake, right-wing politicians will be much less visible than they were on Parliament Hill last weekend. They’re trying to sew a blue collar onto their pinstripe suits, but make no mistake: they’ll favour business over truckers every time.

Jim Stanford is Economist and Director of the Centre for Future Work. He divides his time between Sydney, Australia and Vancouver, Canada. Jim is one of Canada’s best-known economic commentators. He served for over 20 years as Economist and Director of Policy with Unifor, Canada’s largest private-sector trade union.