Driver Marsha Pohatu: "If you can't stand your ground and you're gonna cry like a baby, you're treated like a baby." (Photo: Adam Goodall).

Harassment, sexism and 70-hour weeks: Life as a Kiwi truck driver

Marsha Pohatu has lost two front teeth and seen friends die while working in the New Zealand trucking sector. The industry’s culture of dangerous practices has to stop, she says.

Exhausting and illegal hours, antagonistic and exploitative management, untreated injuries and fatalities: Driver Marsha Pohatu has witnessed the industry she loves at its grim worst.

During her 15 years as a truck driver, dispatcher, administrator and manager in Auckland, Gisborne and Hawke’s Bay she’s experienced firsthand the problems brought into the public eye by The Spinoff’s recent exposé.

This week a truck driver pleaded guilty to causing the deaths of two children after driving over his hours and falsifying his log book, once again highlighting the tragic consequences of not putting safety first.

Marsha is now an owner-driver. She sat down with The Spinoff on the coast of Poverty Bay to talk about the industry’s persistent culture of irresponsible and dangerous practices, and how it’s time for drivers and management alike to start taking responsibility for the change that needs to happen.

What sort of hours have you been expected to work over the course of your career?

Being a solo mum I had to make sure I had a steady income. So I had to work for companies ‘cause I knew I was gonna have a paypack every week. It was a busy life. Long days, long nights.

Working in Auckland, I was doing probably anything from 10 to 14-hour days. Moving to Gisborne it was probably an eight to 10-hour day.

In Hawke’s Bay I was doing probably anything from nine to illegal hours, if I was driving. I would be doing administration in the morning, load the truck up, at lunchtime get on the road, head to Gisborne, go do deliveries. My days were very long.

What would your day look like?

If I was doing runs, it would be backward and forward every day. So on Monday, I’d leave Gisborne here probably around 4 o’clock in the morning, get down to Hawke’s Bay, do all the paperwork that they needed to be done, trucks were coming in, help with the offload, check out freight. As soon as the Gisborne and Wairoa freight was sorted and the local trucks had moved out, I’d bring in the Gisborne unit, load that up, get all my paperwork ready, roll out of there. So I’d aim at rolling out of there between 12 and 1. Do deliveries all the way through. If I missed some of them here in Gisborne, I’d stay here the night, offload it at 7 o’clock in the morning, straight back down. And then repeat the same day again.

Originally, the job was only, like, a 40-50 hour week but it became many more hours. I was running two logbooks. But you knew where the CVIU (Commercial Vehicle Investigation Unit) sat so you knew where you could dodge them. [Laughs]

And what about at Big B Cartage (in Auckland)?

Oh, Big B, for fuck’s sakes. Well, being in management, being a driver, being an overseer, everything, I was basically seven days a week. I couldn’t tell you how many hours I put in per day.

Big B was a lot of blood and guts and tears. I don’t regret what I’ve put in because I created that company and they had a really good name out there. [And] I had an excellent team of staff. They all did anything between eight to 10 to 12 hours a day themselves.

It was a very full-on job, to the point that there was a few times that my son would say, ‘you’re never home, you’re always at work, why do you have to work today’. Which, y’know, was a bit of an eye-opener for me.

So at Big B you were being asked to work, at the worst, seven days a week?

I wasn’t asked, they didn’t ask me. I was in charge of running this operation so I had to put all the time I could put into it. I’d arrive in dark, leave in dark.

They don’t explicitly ask, but there’s an expectation?

That’s the word. Expectation.

I never claimed for all my hours that I did. And when I did write those hours in, there’d be complaints. ‘Why are you working so long. Why is it taking you this long to do this and do that.’ But they never came down to actually see what I did, and how much time went into that every day and week. You have no show completing every task every day.

Are there expectations in the industry for drivers as well – for example, is there an expectation that a run will take less time than it does, or that they will be able to drive through for ten hours without taking a rest?

That’s why we have two log books! One thing that has come into the system now is having GPS stuff, your EROAD and all that, because you’ve got to make sure you take your half-hour break. But, there’s a cunning one in there, I shouldn’t say it but I’m going to. [Laughs].

The driver might go to a customer for a pick-up and be stuck waiting because it’s not ready. The customer could say, ‘well I’ve got ten minutes and it’ll be ready’, but you’re there for an hour. But you’ve gotta keep rolling. So what you do is you utilise that one hour you’re sitting there and you make that your break. But you’re actually not, you’re still on work time. You know, you’ve got 10 more jobs ahead of you and you’ve got a five o’clock deadline to pick them all up because that’s when they close, and you’re sitting there at lunch time or one o’clock [and] this customer’s holding you back. So you’re officially taking a break, but you’re waiting, or helping them get it ready.

So drivers are essentially being expected to work through their statutory breaks and misrepresent that?

Yeah, definitely, misrepresenting it.

With all of these long hours that you’re working, what kind of impact does it have on drivers’ health?

Drivers have passed away.

One driver had a turn at the wheel heading back to Auckland from Gisborne, fully loaded truck. He went straight into a wall. It turned out to be an Auckland City Council truck, which was one of Big B’s units. So finding that out and then finding out that the driver had passed away… [She takes a moment].

Sorry. It’s the hardest thing. His name was Shane. He’d just got back with his wife and family after a separation. He was happy and smiley and he had intentions of moving his wife and family to Gisborne because she has family down here as well, for a new beginning.

To lose a driver and then to go knock on the door of the family, it’s the hardest thing ever. The owner of Big B was fantastic. He went to the tangi and he went to see the family as well. We were able to find out that he did have a turn at the wheel. It could’ve been related to fatigue, we’re not too sure. He stayed with family the night before and came in in the morning after his 10-hour break. He had a passenger who was able to tell us what happened. They were talking away when, all of a sudden, Shane just went blank. He took one corner and didn’t take the next one. To this day when I go through the gorge there, I toot out to Shane.

In Auckland we had a couple of drivers pass away. Wasn’t work-related, but would’ve been a build-up, I’d say. A couple of drivers had seizures. Another one was in the wrong place at the wrong time and got his foot caught underneath the fork hoist.

When I’ve had drivers under my watch, I’ve looked after them. They’ve followed what the medical certificate has said. For myself, I was loading up a Hawke’s Bay unit and I tripped over a railway track. My wrists went straight up to the deck of the truck. My chin caught [the deck of the truck], which ruptured my bottom tooth, which I didn’t know at the time, and I carried on. I dropped into the BP in Bayview on the way back and bought a coffee and a cold drink but I couldn’t have either. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t drink, I was starving. The next day I still went to work, still starving, couldn’t have breakfast. I didn’t go to the doctors. I went to a dentist, that was it. I didn’t go seek help for myself.

I’ve sprained my ankles a number of times. When we [Big B] had our old depot the ground was mud through winter so you couldn’t see whether you were walking in puddles or anything.

That sounds like a health and safety nightmare.

It definitely is. That was acknowledged on many occasions, with the landlord and with the owner of Big B. We got buckets of stone poured over [the ground] but it wasn’t enough. So I sprained my ankle a number of times, but I just sucked it up and carried on.

Why?

Because I felt that nobody else would be able to do the job. It wasn’t just driving, I was managing the whole business. [I would] step back from some of the jobs I would do, like offloading the truck. But if they needed me, I’d be there and I’d go out and assist them where I needed to.

And then this incident happened with Big B hiring this ‘new branch manager’ over me to take my job, and [shortly after] I rolled my ankle again. So I decided, ‘no, I’m gonna take time for me’.

I went to the doctors and got a medical [certificate]. I think it was five days [off work], because my ankle was swollen up and I had to keep it elevated. I took my medical back to the job and the owner of Big B up in Auckland said that I could do ‘light duties’. I couldn’t – you’re in a freight company, when can you elevate your foot in a freight company? You can’t!

[The owner of Big B] wasn’t happy with it. He wanted a second opinion and he said he was gonna organise it. So I went to get the second opinion and that doctor said the same thing, but they added another few days to it. And [the doctor] saw I wasn’t in a good place because, y’know, I was actually having to prove myself that I was injured.

And after all these years of working for this guy, walking around with injuries, still doing the job, lose frickin’ two teeth out of it, get a plate at my expense, had to argue the ACC on that – y’know, I felt frickin’ shit. ‘You wanker’, pretty much. ‘Fuck you. You wanted to bring someone in? He can have my job! I’m gonna look after me.’ And I got in the shit for it. There were still more arguments over emails after that second visit to the doctors. I was dealing with these emails from the owner of Big B, him saying that I was ‘sabotaging his business’.

Why was he saying that? Because you were taking time off?

Yeah! He ended up getting quite into my head, [so much so that] I did have thoughts of suicide. I’m not going to deny it. That, ‘do I have to kill myself for you to fucking wake up?’ But then, you know, it was my kids – I couldn’t leave them. Over him? Really? He’s nothing to me, really, in the bigger picture. He’s just a friggin’ asshole boss.

So on my visit back to the doctors, I told them what was going on with these emails. And I actually had a breakdown, so they booked me in for counselling. I ended up getting referred through ACC and I did a number of sessions, which was really good – it took a lot off me. But through the transition of doing the counselling sessions, I was still getting all these emails. So with the counselling, I came right, I resigned from Big B. I didn’t need them.

The Spinoff has seen copies of the emails Marsha refers to. Big B did not respond to The Spinoff’s request for comment.

During your 15 years in the industry, have you experienced or seen sexism?

You have some male drivers out there that are pigs. There are women truck drivers out there that are pigs, as well, I can’t just put it all to the guys. But one of our drivers, one of my mates, her truck broke down and another truck driver went past. This is in the night; he checked on her and she goes, ‘yeah, nah, it’s all good, someone’s coming to help’. So he sat there for a bit with her and then he made a move on her. She said, ‘no, I don’t do this shit’, and he got pissed with her. She made another phone call and then got a hold of the company that he worked for, and he got dismissed instantly. So yeah, it does happen out there. Customer service girls as well, they get it from drivers.

When I was hiring staff in Auckland and in Gisborne, I’d tell the females at the interviews that this is a male-dominated business. Which it is. Transport, freight, is dominated by men. If you want to join their field and become a driver, you have to be able to do the shit that they do. You’re going to have to handle the shit that comes out of their mouth. Either you join it or get squashed.

It’s hard for a woman in this industry. You gotta be able to stand your ground. If you can’t stand your ground and you’re gonna cry like a baby, well, you’re treated like a baby.

Why did you choose to become an owner-operator after spending all that time driving in companies?

I was offered this [contract] last year. I turned it down, for the simple fact that I still had one [child] at high school. This time, when this opportunity came in my direction again, I was ready for it. And I love it. I love not having to answer to anybody. I’m happy with the contract that I’ve signed up for. It’s a new challenge for me, it’s way out of my comfort zone, I’m enjoying it.

Your health and safety is you, and you’re not running by the book scheduled by the company no more. You know you have to [comply with] all these things for you. Like, this is my bread and butter now. If I’m in an accident, I’m the one who’s gotta go and hunt for another vehicle to carry on my services and my contract, whereas before it’d just be, ‘oh, just grab another truck’.

In The Spinoff’s article about conditions in the trucking industry the Road Transport Forum (RTF) estimated that the industry was short around 4,000 skilled drivers. Why do you think that is?

Oh, god. Pay rates would be one. A lot of people want bigger money, a lot of them would be looking at at least $22-plus an hour. But some of them are paying less than that. Majority of them would be minimum wage.

But again, it comes down to experience. You need to have experienced drivers. And sometimes it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.

I started on minimum wage and made my way up the ladder. Moving to Gisborne, I was paid minimum wage, which was my choice; it was a lifestyle, not about the money. In an operations role I was on, like, $55,000-60,000 a year.

I’m very comfortable where I’m at now, and I’m locked in for five years. It’s not gonna go up and it’s not gonna go down and I’m fine with that. Lot of companies don’t give you pay increases – you could be there for a long time and still not get pay increases.

Is turnover high in the industry?

Yeah, it is. One of the reasons is work conditions. [Drivers] sign up for a 40-hour week because it works for their home and they’re doing a 70-hour week. And, y’know, if the companies did it right, they’d hire another part-timer in to accommodate those hours and they’d get a fresher driver rather than pushing someone to their limits. Y’know, which one’s better? Pushing someone to their limits or bringing on a part-timer who’s fresh, rested up? It’s logic.

The RTF also said that there were “elements of surprise” in the article and that safety and compliance have always been paramount for transport operators. Do you find that that’s an acceptable statement?

No. It’s common sense. Y’know, each individual has to be responsible for themselves. The companies have responsibilities as well, but you are the operator – you have to be responsible for what you’re doing. You can blame it on the company, but you’re the one behind the wheel.

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Drivers, when you know you’re burning out, speak out, because the outcome’s either going to be something really bad or you’re going to take your burnout home to your family, and they’re going to have to deal with it. It’s either going to happen on the road or it’s gonna happen at home. So don’t be scared to speak up.

And if your company is saying, ‘No, you need to go’, you have the right to say no. You’re a driver. You’re responsible for your unit, you’re responsible for your load, you have a responsibility to your family to get home to them every day. So don’t let no company bully you around on that. If you do, it’s on you. The company, are they going to be there for you when you go down? Probably not. Some will, some won’t. So, you know, just look at the bigger picture.

Read more:

Transport’s dirty little secret: The truckers breaking the law just to survive


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