The head of a taskforce set up to fix Sydney’s struggling bus services has suggested bringing in overseas workers to fill driver shortages.
- There are 380 vacancies for bus drivers across Sydney, down from 800 earlier this year
- A taskforce chairman suggests more drivers can be recruited from the Pacific Islands
- He says some operators should not have been handed bus contracts during privatisation
Private operators that run the network have blamed hundreds of driver vacancies for months of delays and cancellations.
Bus Industry Taskforce chairperson John Lee said recruitment drives had resulted in about 300 new drivers, but another 380 were still needed.
He told ABC Radio Sydney’s Sarah Macdonald that the lack of unskilled migration had contributed to the shortage.
“When you get new people coming to our city and our country, their start-up jobs are jobs like delivery drivers, health or aged care assistants, or bus drivers,” Mr Lee said.
“And we haven’t had unskilled migration.”
The former New South Wales bus network chief suggested an arrangement similar to the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme could be used to secure more drivers.
“We’ve actually got seasonal workers who already come from the Pacific Islands to pick fruit to work in agriculture,” Mr Lee said.
“”And we think this type of job [bus driver] is a vital job.”
Mr Lee pointed to New Zealand, which has attracted hundreds of foreign drivers this year after introducing a two-year work-to-residence pathway for truck and bus drivers in December.
“The reason they don’t have a bus shortage is they purposely targeted experienced drivers out of Asia, and they focused on the Philippines,” he said.
Suggestion ‘misses the mark’
At the height of the shortage earlier this year, there were 800 vacancies.
Mr Lee said more than 800 people had signed on but at the same time other drivers had retired or left the system.
The taskforce’s first report handed to the state government in July recommended it consider developing an application to the federal government to create a bus driver labour agreement to make it easier to hire overseas drivers.
But the report also warned it was likely to take time and considerable resources to make such a case.
Transport Workers’ Union NSW secretary Richard Olsen said it would be better to focus on recruiting locals than overseas workers.
“It totally misses the mark,” he said.
“It just has not been helpful for the bus industry now and into the future.
“It is no good going overseas to look at a problem, which we have right here now in NSW.”
He said increasing wages and improving conditions was crucial to attracting more people and retaining them.
Bus drivers were paid about $31 an hour, but Mr Lee said they could earn significantly more through overtime.
Split shifts to cover the peak morning and afternoon times had also been raised as disincentives for new drivers.
But Mr Lee said split shifts were largely unavoidable to provide the level of service commuters needed to get to and from work.
“Some of the operators have been very clever. They’ve set up lounges.They’ve actually set up even sleeping rooms for some of their drivers.”
Tougher enforcement on agenda
The taskforce’s next interim report, due in November, will make another 12 recommendations that address the disparity of services between eastern and western suburbs, and planning and asset management.
The taskforce is also looking at legislative and regulatory changes needed to improve standards from the private operators.
“Sometimes you do need to introduce changes to law to enforce things so that things will get better,” Mr Lee said.
Mr Lee acknowledged that privatisation of the network had been mishandled. In some cases, companies with no experience operating bus services or knowledge of Sydney had received contracts.
“That should never have happened,” he said.
But he said it was too late to undo it.
“I think the yolk and the whites are now mixed. I think we’ve got to make it work,” Mr Lee said.
In August, U-Go Mobility was threatened with losing its contract to run buses in Sydney’s south after a chaotic first month that left many commuters stranded or waiting a long time.
“They’ve actually put a lot of work into fixing that, so there are methods that you can apply through the contract,” Mr Lee said.
“Are they strong enough? I’m not sure.”
Mr Lee said safety was also a priority, but seatbelts were not the answer for inner-city buses.
“Whether they’re on King Street, Parramatta Road, Victoria Road, the bus speed is usually less than 50 kilometres per hour,” he said.
For routes that include highways, like the 600 service in the north-west, which travels on the M2 motorway, speed limits and a cap on the number of people standing on the bus were being considered.
https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-09-28/overseas-bus-drivers-pacific-island-sydney-shortage-taskforce/102913686 Foreign bus drivers can help fill Sydney shortage, head of industry taskforce suggests