One Question Quiz
(Photo: Getty Images)
(Photo: Getty Images)

SocietyApril 9, 2020

Dispatch from the frontline: A bus driver on working in lockdown NZ

(Photo: Getty Images)
(Photo: Getty Images)

An Auckland bus driver tells Leonie Hayden what it’s like to operate under alert level four, and the struggle to secure a safer work environment.

Mike moved to New Zealand in 2001. “I’m a Kiwi now,” he says, “and a die-hard unionist.” He’s employed by a large New Zealand bus company and as union delegate he says he’s ready to fight to protect his colleagues.

Mike (not his real name) has been a bus driver on and off for different companies since 2004. Now he and his fellow drivers are classified as essential workers included under the Covid-19 alert level four restrictions. Since the lockdown was announced, Auckland’s buses have been running on a Saturday timetable and people have been asked to use them only for essential travel. “In a five-hour shift, there might be only 10 or 12 people on the bus now,” Mike says.

He’s not working on the day we talk. “I’m sitting at home today but since 8 o’clock in the morning I’m on my phone with the drivers, with the union, sending off emails, posting relevant stuff about Covid. It feels like I’m working more than I used to,” he says, laughing. His role as delegate means that his colleagues bring any concerns to him and he relays them to the union. “We’ve got a lot of WhatsApp groups. Current situations, concerns, all are discussed and put forward to the company and the union.”

He says the issues they’re most concerned about are Personal Protection Equipment and bus hygiene. The guidelines released by the Ministry of Health for essential workers includes the same advice for all, and has been echoed by Auckland Transport for their drivers – physical distancing, good hand hygiene, cough etiquette, regular cleaning of surfaces and frequently touched items, and avoiding touching face, eyes, mouth and nose. But advice on who should wear PPE (including gloves, masks and eye protection) varies from service to service. A chart issued by the Ministry of Health showing the PPE requirements for essential non-health workers makes no mention of bus drivers,  although the recommendation for supermarket workers, for example, is that no PPE is required at all.

Guidelines for use of PPE can be found at the Ministry of Health website. Unless you’re a bus driver.

Mike and his colleagues are still concerned, and list hand sanitiser and wipes among the supplies that they feel have not been provided to an acceptable level.

“[There’s] a lack of PPE. A huge shortage, across the board. We have not received the kind of PPE we should have as essential workers – face masks, sanitisers, gloves or even anti-bacterial wipes.”

Some supplies have been delivered he says, but they run out quickly, or some depots don’t receive any at all. “They told us they would be putting sanitisers on the buses last week. Unfortunately, they didn’t do anything of that sort. AT [Auckland Transport] provided the company with a 20-litre container but the sanitiser didn’t reach all the depots.

“AT are blaming that on not getting enough supplies, that they are going to healthcare workers. We understand that, they’re really important, they’re on the frontline, but we are essential workers as well and we need to be safe.”

A spokesperson for Auckland Transport acknowledged that there had been issues as suppliers are prioritising government orders. “To support operators Auckland Transport sent hand sanitiser to operators last weekend to replenish stock while more sanitiser and face masks are being sourced through the NZTA National Emergency Response Team.”

The company employs around 1000 drivers. Mike says while measures such as rear entry only, cashless fares and extra cleaning services were announced at the beginning of lockdown, their implementation has been piecemeal. “The cleaning was not up to standards at all. It has been specifically stated by AT and the government that all the buses have to be properly cleaned and sanitised so that everybody is safe, not just the driver but also the passengers. Previously, before the coronavirus and all that, the buses come back at night, the cleaner comes in, they hardly take one minute to clean the bus. Pick up the rubbish, that’s it. Now what’s happening – the same thing!”

He describes the driver control console on some buses as “horrible”.

“Our brakes, our buttons, our RT [radio transmitter], our steering wheel. It’s full of dirt because they haven’t been cleaned properly since ages. If only we could get the antibacterial wipes and the gloves. It’s not our job to clean it, but we can at least clean the steering wheel and the console.”

Drivers began taking things into their own hands, says Mike, when a two-metre cordon separating passengers from the driver’s seat failed to eventuate. “For the first three or four days it wasn’t done. So the drivers were taking the ticket roll and doing it themselves. They were taping the ticket roll across the bus so passengers couldn’t get within that two metres’ distance.”

Like many essential workers, bus drivers are among the lowest paid. Mike says it’s a struggle at the best of times, which is why he’s appalled that their safety isn’t more of a priority. His usual shift is what’s known as a “broken shift” ­– a morning commute shift then an unpaid break of four hours and another shift during the afternoon peak. Eight or nine hours work in total but he’s often required to be at the depot for 12 or 13. “As per our deal with the company we have a meal allowance to be paid to “broken” drivers. And that, off the top of my head, is about $5.60. And so you can imagine sitting there for four hours. If you calculate the 12 to 13 hours we’re at the depot doing a broken shift, we don’t even get paid $15 an hour.”

He says that as per Land Transport rules there only has to be 10 hours between shifts, so some drivers only get five hours sleep a night as a matter of course. “Getting ready for work, transport to and from work. Having dinner, having a shower. Spending some time with your family… that is included in the 10 hours between shifts.”

Things are starting to improve on the cleaning front “because of some of the pressure we’ve put on the company”, he says hopefully.

“Since the beginning of this week, the cleaning has improved a bit. They have stepped up the cleaning process. That’s the feedback I’ve got from my members.”

Auckland Transport says it’s doing its best to support the drivers at this difficult time. “They’re doing a great job and are the unsung heroes out there on the road helping get essential workers to their jobs.”

Mike says the company he works for has also told him they’re trying their best but some things are in high demand. “At the end of the day, trying is not good enough. Will trying keep us safe? I don’t think so.”

“We are essential workers as well. We are on the frontline and we are transporting other people who are essential workers. The only thing we expect is also to be kept safe so that our families are safe as well.”

Keep going!