WorkSafe is targeting Aramex in the hope of bringing about systemic and long-term improvements in the courier company’s health and safety performance. But drivers are reporting dangerous levels of stress and exhaustion, and they want action now – before someone is killed.
In December last year a deputation of Aramex courier drivers and their representatives met with WorkSafe officials to plead for intervention in what they described as an ongoing health and safety crisis in the company.
In written and verbal statements to the regulator, they described being worked to exhaustion, suffering bullying from superiors, and receiving no support from Aramex New Zealand. Two of those whose experiences were reported at the meeting had come to the brink of suicide as a result of the huge hours spent sorting, delivering and picking up parcels, and net incomes that were so low they struggled to provide for their families.
All the drivers had purchased “last mile” courier franchises, and operated under the oversight of Aramex regional franchisees, who in turn come under the umbrella of United Arab Emirates-owned Aramex New Zealand. The franchises are promoted by Aramex – formerly called Fastway Couriers – as good opportunities for self-employment, with the potential to quickly build a customer base within an exclusive local territory and to make strong capital gains on the investment.
Among them was Susan*, who bought a franchise and an Aramex-branded van in October 2019. It was an opportunity to help family members who needed work. They took over the run just as the pre-Christmas rush was getting underway, and immediately struggled to cope with the enormous parcel volume. However, when the opportunity later came up to buy two more runs she decided to take them, hoping this would improve the family’s returns. She paid a total of $15,000, as well as vans to service the territories.
Instead of improving the situation, the additional runs led to further exhaustion and did nothing to improve their inadequate income. In her statement to WorkSafe she spoke of 12-hour days, seven days a week, being harassed by her regional franchisee for ‘not doing enough’, and being pushed to start earlier and work later.
At one point she was working from 3am until 11pm. She wasn’t stopping for meals or to go to the toilet, and survived on energy drinks. She developed stomach and bowel ailments and lost a large amount of weight.
In an interview with Newsroom, Susan said there were many times when she had to keep herself awake at the wheel by turning up the air conditioner and blasting cold air on her face. Once, she was jolted awake by rumble strips to find her van drifting across the road.
Aramex “doesn’t see a person, they see a robot that does deliveries and makes them money,” she wrote in her statement for WorkSafe. She reached such a state of desperation that suicide seemed the only way out. She was saved only by her partner who sensed something was badly wrong, and drove around until he found her in a state of acute distress.
She said that after her breakdown there was no concern exhibited for her wellbeing; she was told by her regional franchisee that ‘some people just aren’t cut out to be couriers’.
“We cannot continue to be treated the way we are,” she told WorkSafe. “A drastic change is needed before someone is killed.”
Geraldine Priest was another to provide a statement, which was written and delivered in January, six weeks after the December meeting. She described having to work from 6 in the morning until 8 or 9 at night, and sometimes later, to get through the volume of freight. “The work is very demanding, stressful and exhausting. Each week we are reminded we must clear our bays by the end of the week. The only way this is achieved is to work the weekends. There is no time with your family or even to go shopping for food,” wrote 61-year-old Priest who, with her husband, was until recently a franchisee in Wellington.
Former Northland franchisee Brian Cossey told of being driven to the brink of suicide late last year by the unrelenting workload and an income that was far below the minimum wage. By the time of the December meeting with WorkSafe, Cossey had walked away from his run. “If I had stayed, I would have died,” Cossey said in an interview with Newsroom last week.
North Shore franchise owner Ross Gibson also Zoomed in to the meeting, representing the experience of the mostly migrant drivers in his area, some of whom submitted written statements telling the same story of acute stress, extreme hours and poor incomes. One driver wrote of deciding to abandon his two runs and walking away from his $69,000 investment, having never had a day off since he started in 2019.
Waiting for action
After the meeting wrapped up, those who had made statements were hopeful of action to confront the risks to drivers’ health and safety, not to mention the hazards posed to other road users from the presence of dangerously fatigued couriers on the road.
But none of them has heard from WorkSafe since.
In the vacuum, Susan says she has been left feeling “embarrassed”, having revealed the extent of her breakdown and vulnerability to the officials. She says she hasn’t told the full story even to her parents, “so to have told complete strangers and for them to say, ‘oh well’ and then brush it to the side” was deeply disappointing.
In fact, WorkSafe has not brushed the issue aside. A few months ago it started working with Aramex in a bid to bring about change from the top of the organisation. It has deployed a ‘Targeted Complex Intervention’ (TCI), which is a new tool reserved for large organisations “with an established reputation and track record for under performance with regards to health and safety”, the organisation told Newsroom in an OIA response.
The Aramex TCI is described as ‘abbreviated’, on account of the regulator’s “capacity constraints”, said WorkSafe chief executive Phil Parkes.
The decision to launch a TCI puts Aramex in the same company as repeat health and safety offender Talley’s Group, with which WorkSafe set up the first such intervention last year.
The objective of the TCI approach is to address the root causes of poor health and safety by working with the company to change the systems of work that push risk down onto workers and contractors at the bottom of the food chain.
Parkes says his officials have met Aramex’s senior leadership to discuss directors’ and chief executive duties under the Health and Safety at Work Act, including in relation to “influence and control, which is about managing…supply chain issues, which is a WorkSafe priority”.
The next step is for the company to complete a voluntary ‘Safe Plus’ programme, an analytical framework designed to help organisations improve health and safety under the broad headings of leadership, worker engagement and better risk management. Parkes says Aramex is now working through that programme, and cooperating with WorkSafe.
“This is not a soft option,” he says. “The business must fully cooperate and meet our improvement expectations or swift enforcement action will follow.”
Aramex New Zealand chief executive Mark Little would not be interviewed, but said in an email response that the company takes the issue of long hours and fatigue “very seriously, and we are putting a lot of attention into improving resources, such as our franchise manuals, making them relevant and usable across the network.”
Little said the company had “extended its corporate wellbeing assistance program [sic] to all Courier Franchisees at no cost”.
Parkes says he’s “deeply concerned” not just about Aramex, but the wider freight industry. Acute pressure on drivers is “endemic to the entire sector, and that won’t be solved by taking individual enforcement actions for individual incidents”.
A 2021 report for WorkSafe noted that “factors such as remuneration, employment status, management commitment, upstream decisions, and goal conflict can lead to symptoms such as speeding, fatigue, stress, aggressive driving, and others…
“A healthy system does not produce the kind of contractor relationships we are seeing in New Zealand within commercial transport, particularly among courier drivers and the like. Contractors, the self-employed, and small business owners are frequently operating on precarious terms and many are not afforded the independence suggested in their title.”
Where’s the cavalry?
But where does all this leave the Aramex drivers who, having blown the whistle on the company, want to see material change?
“I absolutely acknowledge the terrible position that these workers are being put in,” says Parkes. “We’ve got similar issues in construction and forestry, with people suffering extreme pressure and suicidal thoughts, and we do take these issues very, very seriously.”
For ProDrive chief executive Peter Gallagher, who as a driver advocate is dealing daily with Aramex franchisees suffering from exhaustion, financial stress and severely compromised mental health, Parkes’ response is unconvincing. He says WorkSafe has to start talking to the people who are in the thick of the crisis, and respond to drivers who are at risk of “imminent harm”.
“The gulf between the coal face and the theorists is at such a point that someone is going to die. We are at the coal face here, and we are seeing this every day. Where is the cavalry?”
There’s a yawning gulf, too, between Aramex’s claims that franchisees are self-employed with the opportunity for capital growth, and the daily reality of tight company control, rising freight volumes, and poor earnings.
Newsroom has spoken to drivers who have had runs taken off them by their regional franchisees for alleged breaches of delivery targets and other KPIs, and losing their capital investment as a result. Susan had one of her runs taken, with no return on the $10,000 she had paid for it.
Drivers often find deductions made from their monthly remuneration for failing to meet KPIs. Ross Gibson, who owns a North Shore run which is operated by his son, says drivers can be docked for failing to be at the depot by the stipulated start time in the morning, for not being “presentable”, and for a share of the loss or damage to goods, even if they are not at fault and the damage has occurred further back up the supply chain.
Drivers have also told Newsroom of instances when they haven’t been able to get through the volume of freight in the required timeframe, and their regional franchisee has brought in outside contractors – including gig workers engaged under Aramex’s Blu Courier brand –to do the work. While some regional franchisees help to cover this cost, in other cases drivers find it has been deducted from their monthly payment, without prior warning or supporting invoices.
It is clear from drivers’ descriptions of their typical days that the regulations governing maximum work hours – 13 hours a day, with half-hour breaks every five and a half hours, and a 10 hour continuous break – are often breached. Some drivers Newsroom has spoken to didn’t know there were limitations on maximum hours. (Although it should be noted that there is virtually no enforcement of the rules in the courier sector, where drivers don’t have to be licensed by Waka Kotahi and are not required to carry logbooks.)
Parcel volumes have grown substantially, particularly as the pandemic and lockdowns have pushed more consumers towards online shopping. Aramex New Zealand’s cashflow from courier fees has increased 46 percent since 2019 (from $39.6 million to $58 million), according to the company’s latest financial statements.
But many drivers don’t feel as if they have profited from this growth. Per-parcel delivery payments can be as little as 30 cents for a small Trade Me delivery, or 95 cents for a parcel purchased online from Briscoes (with which Aramex has a national contract).
Confronted at 3.30 one morning with a “crazy amount” of such freight waiting to be sorted and delivered, Brian Crossey hit the wall. He was already exhausted from working 14 hours and more a day, six or seven days a week, driving 230 km a day on Northland roads, and often going days without seeing his small children. He had experienced two fatigue-related falls and two near-misses on the road, and had tried over several months to raise the alarm with his regional franchisee about what he called “excessive, dangerous and unlawful working hours and conditions”.
He was literally at the top of a cliff and contemplating suicide when he received a fortuitous phone call telling him there was perishable freight that he needed to deliver; if he didn’t do it “a little old lady would go hungry”. He went back to the depot and finished up, then went home and never returned to his Aramex run.
When his doctor declared him unfit for work, his regional franchisee, Stuart Spittle, emailed him to remind him of his obligations to “ensure your exclusive territory is serviced daily”. He then received bills for covering his run, charged at $50 an hour – about four times the income he had been earning. He refused to pay.
Cossey has twice spoken out publicly about his breakdown as a result of stress and exhaustion with Aramex. But he has never been contacted by Aramex New Zealand to offer support, or to find out more about how his involvement with the company had pushed him to the point of near-catastrophe.
Aramex New Zealand’s Mark Little told Newsroom in an email on Tuesday: “This was a matter between an independent Regional Franchisee and Mr Cossey. As for Aramex New Zealand, while we were ensuring that the processes and protocols in addressing such matters are followed, we couldn’t be directly involved throughout the process. All Mr Cossey’s concerns regarding remuneration were fully addressed by the Regional Franchisee.”
*Name has been changed. The interviewee requested anonymity to protect her family.