Unions have warned of the potential for more accidents following calls to add truck driving to the list of occupations eligible for 457 temporary skilled migrant visas.
ABC PM, by Michael Janda, 6 January 2014
The Australian Trucking Association (ATA) has proposed the visa expansion, saying the industry has been hit hard by competition with the mining boom for heavy vehicle drivers.
Chief executive Stuart St Clair says the worst shortages are in western New South Wales, northern Queensland and parts of Western Australia.
"We found that there are some critical shortages in those areas that are particularly affected by resources industry, and we find that while there's no shortages as such within the cities, there certainly is in some more regional areas across Australia," he said.
"Where they are unable to secure local drivers, we think it's important that they have some options to be able to assist in finding some 457 temporary visa drivers from say the UK or the US."
Mr St Clair, however, acknowledged the drivers could be sourced from any country.
"I would think that operators will ensure - depending on what job they are looking for them to do - ensure those people are properly and appropriately qualified, and to ensure that they provide them with any of the extra skills they need," he added.
Union denies shortage, points to poor retention rates
The Transport Workers Union is suspicious of the trucking industry's motives.
Its acting national secretary, Michael Kaine, says transport companies simply do not want to pay higher wages to attract and retain drivers.
"It's just an easy way to take an easy path for an easy dollar for those that the ATA represents," he argued.
Mr Kaine says Bureau of Statistics figures show there are plenty of people looking for work in the sector, but long hours, tight delivery deadlines and poor pay deter drivers from taking the jobs.
"The underemployment data at August 2013 shows that 34,500 people were looking for work in transport, postal and logistics," he said.
"This is not an industry that is one that there's a shortage of people looking for work, this is an industry that needs to get those pressures lifted so that there's an attraction and retention rate in the industry for drivers."
That is a view shared by Frank Black, an owner-driver from Brisbane. He is a member of the union, but also sits on the ATA's general council.
"We've got a driver shortage in the industry, but in saying that, there's also a lot of skilled drivers here in Australia that are out of work," he said.
He says there are not many young people coming into the industry, but lots of experienced drivers quitting because of the poor employment conditions.
"I personally would know of a good half a dozen [who have quit driving], and that's just me," he added.
Drivers under pressure to meet 'unrealistic' timelines
Mr Black says truck drivers face a lot of pressures to break laws to deliver goods on time and drive enough kilometres to earn a decent income.
"A lot of them are incentive-based, like kilometre rates, so obviously the more kilometres they do the more they get paid, and that's probably the majority of it," he said.
"The kilometre rate is very poor, which obviously entices them to work longer.
"Then they've got the big players that all turn around and put unrealistic timelines on it with the threat of penalties if you don't meet the timeframes."
Mr Black says many local drivers do not fully understand their rights, and he is worried foreign divers would be even more open to abuse by unscrupulous operators.
"A lot of our own people don't even realise that they've got rights, they don't need to do this, but they do it under duress, so how are these overseas people going to go," he added.
'People are going to die'
Mr Kaine says the result of bringing in foreign drivers unfamiliar with Australian roads and road rules, and under the same deadline pressures, will inevitably be an increase in the number of accidents involving heavy vehicles.
"Bring in a pool of drivers not so familiar with Australian conditions, bring in a pool of drivers who haven't got the capacity to put up their hand to say that something's wrong," he said.
"This is not a solution, it's actually going to make the problem worse, people are going to die."
However, Mr St Clair insists that bringing in foreign truck drivers is no different to hiring overseas nurses on 457 visas.
"There is a set of laws that they actually have to conform with, and if operators are found to be operating, or allowing drivers to operate outside of those, they are actually held liable and be taken to court and punished," he said.