Hard driving

Deewana* is a people person. “I’m not a guy who can work within four walls,” he says. “I love to meet new people and chat with them. And I love driving, so being a courier is the best way for me.”

But the work he loves also has a dark side, limiting his ability to make a living and exposing him to stresses that threaten both his physical and mental health.

“We get hammered by the system,” he says. “Sometimes it gets so much that you’re about to cry, but you can’t stop because you have a family relying on you.”

According to the courier companies that engage them, Deewana and his colleagues are independent contractors who operate their own vehicles and are responsible for their own outcomes.

But as Deewana tells it, the reality is more complex, with the companies imposing rigid rules that drivers must comply with if they’re to remain in the job.

“The contract they give us is a big one.

“No one would have time to read the whole thing before they sign, but it has nothing to help the contractors. It’s totally biased in favour of the company.”

Contracts may vary between companies, but all stipulate when, where and how the drivers are to work, and have strict rules about the types of vehicle they can use.

“You can’t have anything more than five years old. If it’s older they make you buy a new one.”

For most drivers, he says, this requirement means taking on a debt totaling thousands of dollars.

“It takes you four or five years to pay off, and in that time you don’t make any money.”

Expenses mount up

Vehicle purchases aren’t the only upfront expenses, however.

“You have to paint the vehicle in the company colours – that’s around $5000 for a Hiace and more for anything bigger – then pay another $500 to $800 to have their decals put on it. And if the decal gets scraped or starts to look old you have to replace it.

“You also need to buy a scanner for between three and five grand, and buy your own uniform.”

Although it’s standard practice for companies to advance the money for these purchases and deduct it from drivers’ pay over time, Deewana says there are plenty of other job-related costs that come directly from drivers’ pockets.

“You have to have public liability and carriers’ liability insurance at $350 to $400 a month, then there are road user charges, diesel, tyres and other vehicle costs.”

Collectively, these expenses make a big hole in what drivers earn. For those with commercial runs, who deliver a large number of items to a few locations, the impact is usually not too severe. But for residential runs like Deewana’s, which require more mileage per parcel, the costs can be harder to manage.

“Someone working in Countdown could be earning more than us,” he says. “By the time the costs are taken out, a lot of us earn below the minimum wage.”

No consultation

This would be less of a problem if experienced drivers had the opportunity to move to more profitable runs over time, but Deewana says not only are new runs hard to get, but existing runs can also be reduced in size or taken away – without consultation.

“You’re contracted to do a certain area, but they can change the size of it, move you a different one, or even close the run altogether if they want to.

“It’s all in the contract and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

In the 12 years that Deewana has been a courier costs have increased and job pressures intensified, but the take-home pay has changed little.

“Back in 2008 the fuel prices, road user charges and vehicle costs were all quite low and you were earning around $300 per day.

“Now the pay has gone up by about $20 to $40, but costs have gone up a lot more.”

Working harder for less

A bigger concern, however, is how much harder drivers must now work to get the job done – especially since Covid saw online shopping surge in popularity.

“When I started out I had an area covering three or four suburbs, delivering around 150 parcels a day, going up to 180 to 200 pre-Christmas.

“Now you get a smaller area but more than 250 deliveries a day.”

Drivers are contracted to work 12-hour days, Monday to Friday, but Deewana says delivery demands mean many must work longer just to get the job done.

“The company says we should be out of the depot by 7am, but if you have 300 or 400 parcels to sort and load, you have to come in before 5am, and don’t finish until at least 5pm.

“It’s a long time, and most days you don’t get time to take a break.”

Drivers are encouraged to take two half-hour breaks a day, but companies never monitor it, he says.

“They monitor our scanning and our GPS for anything they want, but never to see if we’re taking breaks, or what time we start and finish.

“They’re not interested in our health and safety.”

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Deewana’s hours, however, is that although he’s paid to work five days, he must also work a part-day on Saturday for free. He can’t explain why this is, but it’s in the contract and therefore non-negotiable.

Breach of contract

In a high pressure work environment the contract’s detailed terms and conditions aren’t always easy to comply with, and Deewana says he’s been served breach of contract notices on a number of occasions. If a breach is regarded as serious enough, the company can terminate his contract.

“Our contract says we get paid for sick leave, but it’s our responsibility to provide – and pay – a relief driver.

“I was sick during the Covid lockdown and didn’t want to take the chance of going to work, but I didn’t have a driver who could fill in for me.

“I asked the company to please provide one at my cost, and they gave me a letter for breach of contract.

“Should I have been following the government rule to stay home if you’re sick, or the company’s rule?”

Other drivers he knows have been dismissed for failures that were a direct result of job pressures.

“There are times when drivers can’t get time to go for a pee, and one was fired because it was an emergency and he just had to stop and pee where he was.

“Another had a non-fragile parcel and instead of taking it to the front door he put it out the window of the van. It wasn’t the right thing to do, but when you don’t even get time for a half-hour break in a 12-hour day you can understand why he did it.”

Fighting back

In the wake of these dismissals Deewana and a group of around 60 colleagues from depots across greater Auckland have joined forces, with the support of a union, to lobby for better conditions.

“We just want justice, and to get paid for what we actually do.

“If you work like a bull and get paid like a cat it isn’t right. And we want to be treated with respect, because we’re human too.”

He insists, however, that the group’s actions aren’t personal.

“It’s not our managers that are the problem. It’s the system, not the people that we’re challenging.

“And if we don’t stand up to it the lion will eat us.”

*Not his real name.