Monday, 29 April 2013

Bus Strike: Health and Safety Issues Ignored?

Jersey is on the brink of another bus drivers' strike. The union representing workers at LibertyBus say, as soon as they are legally able, they'll ballot for industrial action in a dispute over working conditions. Unite claim there's a culture of fear with some drivers forced to work excessively long shifts. The bus company deny it. Nick Corbel of the Unite union said: "As soon as we are able to ballot on industrial action we are going to do so. As I've said before we'd far rather resolve our differences the way we've always done so in this island, but they are not interested."

Passengers told us how it will affect them: "I can understand the chaos it can cause I don't really think a strike's in order." "We would be terribly affected because we've been taking the bus for the past two days and it's been brilliant."

The union representing bus drivers is upping the ante with a new list of grievances:

* It says there's not enough wiggle room in the timetable so the pressure to get passengers on and off the buses quickly is a health and safety risk.
* That what it calls big brother on-board video surveillance is fuelling fear.
* That some drivers are having to work excessive hours, sometimes more than 12 hours a day.(1)

In December 2012, when there was a one day bus strike, I pointed out problems with the reduction in a working week. While the number of hours in a week was being reduced, some of the shifts within that week were excessive. I have seen anecdotal evidence of people who have seen the same bus driver first thing in the morning, then working on a bus some eight hours later. This is what I noted then:

It should be pointed out that while the reduction in a working week was pushed by TTS on the grounds of excessive hours being unsafe, badly worked out rota conditions could also work out with drivers spending more time at the wheel without a long enough break, resulting in drivers becoming more tired and being a greater danger to other road users. For example (confirmed by a source) that it is possible that there could be a shift of 11 or 13 hours, with two 2 hour breaks in between, so that each part of the shift on the road is less than 13 hours, the weekly total falls within the limit, but again it is hardly conducive to safety. This should surely be investigated.

It also appears that the mechanics may also be alone in the workshop which is also in breach of Health and Safety best practice, as well as being on call (unpaid) for at least 12 hours on top of a 4 - 5 hour shift. Health and safety seems to have been an issue used where it can cut costs; it seems to have been overlooked when it suits saving money instead.

Another factor was the "wriggle room". The new bus timetables left very little time at each destination before the driver needed to set off again. This meant that, for example, a Corbiere bus which might have 10 minutes at Corbiere before setting off, now had that cut by at least half. This meant that in rush hour traffic, the chances were that there would be delays, because the amount of slack at the destination would have easily been lost. An examination of the Twitter feed on Liberty Bus shows that delays are consistently bad.

I shall be looking at extra matters later in another blog posting, but these ones above do not seem to have been addressed at all since December 2012.

In particular, they do not seem to have been addressed and remain important current grievances. Here they are currently stated in more detail:

. Excessive shift hours (in many cases in excess of 12 hours a day) with staff not knowing what their shifts will consist of except for their start time (these shifts can and do change up to 4 times a day without notice). This flies in the face of comments made by the Transport Minister (under consultation with the Health and Safety department) that state hours would be reduced (they have only reduced the paid time, the actual attendance hours have increased dramatically, with some weeks extending to over 60 hours in a 5 day period). Can Scrutiny examine the shifts and see if this is the case? After all, records of shifts should be kept. Equally, if CT Plus deny this is the case, will they make public their drivers shifts?

. Mechanics are working weekends from 8-12 in the workshop alone and then are on call until the last bus gets in at night without being paid (except if they are called out), If this is true, this would surely be in breach of Health and Safety best practice. It needs investigation.

. The passing over of existing experienced members of staff for full time employment to employ inexperienced full time staff at a lower wage.

It seems that buses are still running late (and apparent some times not at all) which may be due to poor management and operational procedures, and Scrutiny needs to examine the driver and shift timetables to find out exactly what is happening. If staff are having long hours behind the wheel, and the letter of the law is being kept, but in practice, is being circumvented, then we need to know.

I have been collecting quite a lot of anecdotal evidence of drivers who didn't know routes and had to backtrack or be corrected by passengers, which seems to bear out item 3 - CT Plus prioritising inexperienced new staff not sufficiently trained over existing staff. This should also be looked into.

TTS is in too cosy a relationship with CT Plus, and a degree of independence is needed, which has the authority to requisition records, and summon witnesses, hence I would suggest this is a task for the Environment Scrutiny Panel whose remit covers these matters.

The bus drivers do not want a strike, but their concerns need to be properly addressed, not dismissed out of hand. An independent assessment is badly needed. The other person who would be most suited to provide an independent assessment would be the new Auditor General. What is needed is an assessment the public can trust.

We need to get to the truth of the matter, and not have prevarication by the Minister for TTS - a real inquiry is needed, not an "internal" one of the kind those studiously promoted in "Yes Minister":

'So,' I went on, 'if this question comes up in the House, or if the papers start asking questions, I shall announce an inquiry.'
'Excellent idea,' he agreed. 'I shall be more than happy to conduct it.'
I took a deep breath. 'No Humphrey. Not an internal inquiry. A real inquiry.'
His eyes widened in horror. 'Minister! You can't be serious!'

'A real inquiry!' I repeated emphatically. (2)

(2) Yes Minister: The Diaries of the Right Honorable James Hacker, MP

No comments: