APTIA Policy & Advocacy

Public Transport is an Essential Service

Public transport in Australia should be declared an ‘essential service’ in order to:

  • minimise disruption to the public as a result of protected action
  • ensure tax payers dollars aren’t wasted on protracted enterprise agreement negotiations wherein employers, relying on the public purse, giving in to unrealistic demands from employee groups, and
  • provide grounds for the intervention of the Fair Work Commission to resolve employment terms and conditions in the public transport industry.

The debate about which industries should be declared as essential has raged for many years and is tied up in Australian Labour law in the powers given to the Fair Work Commission under the Fair Work Act 2009 to suspend or terminate protected action if that action endangers the life, personal safety or health or welfare of the population or part thereof. 

There is cogent international evidence of jurisdictions such as Canada, the United States (New York Metro) New York and Portugal where public transport has been considered as an ‘essential service’.

Data analysis for the 2016-2017 year was undertaken by the Institute of Transport & Logistics Studies and examines passenger trips undertaken in each state and territory (outlined below). The data has been extrapolated from 3 sources: Australian Bureau of Statistics, Bureau of Transport, Regional Development and Economics and information collated from various state/territory jurisdictions.

Note (*) indicates that school trips were excluded from the patronage measure in these states.

  • NSW 281 million*
  • VIC 131 million*
  • QLD 164 million
  • WA 93 million
  • SA 58 million
  • TAS 10.0 million*
  • ACT 18.3 million
  • NT 6.4 million

There are many examples where the Fair Work Commission has failed to suspend or terminate protected action preferring the right to freedom of association as opposed to promoting productivity and economic growth.

This failure has flown in the face of the impacts that public transport has:

  • In providing social equity in transport for all in the community
  • Providing essential transport for the elderly and young to medical centres, hospitals and commercial centres
  • Providing essential school services up to 201 days a year to school students particularly in the isolated areas of Australia which are vast and significant
  • Providing a safe and secure manner of transport during the evenings particularly in heavily populated areas or tourist destinations.
  • In all of these cases the safety, health and welfare of the population becomes the relevant test.

The continuation of public transport services under current industrial relations laws is not guaranteed as a result of industrial action such as strikes and withdrawal of labour. Unlike the Qantas case several years ago, public transport is not recognised as an essential service, and the Minister has no “step in rights” to cease industrial action.

The Bus Industry Confederation (BIC) has argued for many years that public transport should be recognised in the Fair Work Act as an essential service. It is the BIC’s contention that if public transport services including bus public transport services, (buses carry more passengers per day than any other mode) are stopped due to industrial actions for any prolonged period, it will lead to significant economic and social dislocation. It should be noted that public transport is recognised as an essential service in a number of western developed economies.

By Economic and Social Dislocation We Mean:

Mass transit

Public Transport is a mass transit provider and despite Australia’s relatively low patronage/passenger trips taken by public transport, about 8% to 10% of trips, public transport is a major contributor to keeping our cities and regions moving and managing the impact of congestion and its productivity impacts on the economy. If public transport was stopped overnight, cities that generate 80% of the value of Australia’s GDP would grind to a halt.

Social transit

Public Transport is a social transit provider and provides a vital link to people who are less well off, without a car, cannot afford a car, cannot drive or don’t have a license; public transport moves people to connect to services, employment, education, social and recreational activities that are important to an individual’s social well-being and their contribution to the economy and society. If public transport was stopped overnight a large part of the population would be socially isolated and the health impacts of this would be have a significant impact on the economy and community.

The disruption of mass and social transit on a large scale as a result of industrial action or a health crisis such as the Covid-19 pandemic, demand that public transport is recognised as an essential service and the appropriate action be taken for public transport to continue to operate.

In the case of the Covid-19 pandemic, how public transport can continue to operate and minimise health risk for bus drivers and bus passengers is the key issue at hand that involves state and territory contractual arrangements, bus service operational issues and health risk and management issues.

Healthy fit-to-drive workforce

Of the 3,000-plus bus and coach operations around Australia, the BIC estimates more than 60,000 workers undertake the task of driving a bus or coach to transport Australians safely, travelling over 1 billion kilometres per year or 21 billion passenger kilometres.

Bus and coach drivers constitute the frontline staff of the bus and coach industry and are valuable assets, being greater in scale than all other roles in the industry combined. Drivers make up approximately 80% of the entire labour force in a bus and coach operation, noting that drivers can often take on other roles in an organisation.

According to the ABS Labour Force Survey (2017), bus and coach drivers are aged 56 years on average, as compared to 40 years for the Australian workforce as a whole. Further, there is some level of bimodality in the age profile, with a greater number than average aged between 45-54 years and also above 60. One of the major challenges for the industry is the high proportion (82%) above 45, and the relative difficulty in recruiting the younger generation, with just 7% of the workforce less than 35 years old.

APTIA commissioned a bus and coach driver health and wellbeing survey in 2013. The results of that survey indicated that:

  • drivers have a poor understanding of weight management and there is subsequently or even correlated, that poor dietary choices are indicated for many workers. A poor diet results in increased weight, and increased risk of disease and illness
  • there is an ageing, and predominantly male workforce which presents a number of health issues and risks. The Australian population is becoming an ageing population and industries such as public transport are appealing to the older workforce. It is therefore imperative that companies are proactive in managing their older workforce
  • individuals who are in poor physical condition and of an older age are more prone to injuries occurring in the workplace or in the community. This may result in lost time at work resulting in increased stressors for a company.

APTIA is strongly supportive of ensuring a healthy fit-to-drive workforce that optimizes the safe operation of the vehicle and ensures the well-being of passengers. As part of this ‘quality assurance’ to the passenger, APTIA supports that the decision of a driver being fit-to-drive needs to be assessed, without bias, by well-informed medical practitioners. However, the ‘system’ (driver-medical practitioner-license authority) becomes somewhat fragmented and difficult to use for the Employer who has an ongoing concern and duty of care for their Employees.

In a regional town setting, the ‘system’ is often not practical to apply – particularly when a driver, for example, may require specialised assessments which is typically not readily available in regional towns. The costs, productivity liabilities and time deficits are significant impacts for operators in regional and rural towns. Smaller sized operations (usually regional settings) often do not have the resources of a dedicated Human Resources department.

Bus driver violence and abuse

APTIA supports all states and territories introducing strong penalties for attacks on bus drivers and putting bus passengers at risk.

We are concerned about the increased levels of abuse and violence directed at bus drivers (and passengers) and calls for a strong regime of penalties to be introduced in parallel with an ongoing information campaign to inform the public of the consequences and seriousness of committing crimes on people providing a public service to the community.

Patronage on public transport continues to grow and so too do incidents of anti-social behaviour and violence towards transport staff. Like emergency personnel, public transport staff provide a vital service for our communities, assisting millions of Australians to travel around our cities and regions daily. These individuals deserve to go to work and do their job without threat or harm so they can return home safely.

The Western Australian Government first led the way, when in 2009 it introduced mandatory jail for assaults against public officers (police, ambulance officers, transit guards, court security officers, prison officers and youth custodial officers). The legislation was further strengthened in 2014, introducing a minimum jail term of 12 months for grievous bodily harm to public officers; nine months for bodily harm (in circumstances of aggravation); and six months for assault causing bodily harm. Calling the legislative changes “an effective deterrent against violence”, in 2016, the Western Australian Government reported that a 26 per cent reduction in assaults against public officers and a 35 per cent reduction in incidents obstructing public officers had been achieved since amending the legislation in 2009. In March 2016, the South Australian Government demonstrated its value for and commitment to public transport staff by increasing penalties for assault on transport staff to equal that of assaulting emergency services personnel.

Rather than wait for another victim to act, we implore all jurisdictions/Ministers to adopt a similar approach in Queensland by amending legislation to include increased penalties for those who assault public transport staff and then ensuring these heightened penalties are applied. Anti-social and violent behaviour towards public transport staff is unacceptable. Elevating penalties to align with assaults on emergency services staff will reinforce to the travelling public that abusing and assaulting transport staff whilst they are simply doing their job will not be tolerated.

Safety of all persons is the number one priority for public transport operators, including staff. To address anti-social behaviour and assaults on staff, public transport operators should educate customer-facing employees in protective personal violence elimination security approaches such as (but not limited to):

  • maintaining situational awareness
  • effective communication techniques
  • de-escalation methods
  • best practice security support to staff through empirically validated advances in security technologies (body-worm cameras, CCTV, security screens and duress alarms).