Ahenata Rameka (left) and Puawai Tito left the firm after a settlement, and withdrew their legal claim. Photo: Supplied

Arab Emirates-owned courier company Aramex is again in the gun over worker health and safety, writes Rebecca Macfie

WorkSafe has raised a light hand of enforcement against courier company Aramex, requiring it to address dangerous levels of fatigue among its franchise drivers

The agency issued an improvement notice earlier this month against the United Arab Emirates-based company. Aramex must comply with the order, made under the Health and Safety at Work Act, by April 21. Failure to comply with an improvement notice is an offence under the act, and can attract a fine of up to $250,000.

The order to make improvements follows a stream of accounts from former and current Aramex courier drivers revealing how the company’s franchise-based business model requires them to spend dangerously long hours behind the wheel to get through the workload, often without adequate breaks or meals.

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They are also required to work without pay for the first two or three hours a day sorting parcels at their Aramex depot, before getting out on the road to make deliveries.

Aramex chief executive Mark Little claimed in a written response to questions from Newsroom he understood the improvement notice related to “historic concerns”.

Asked how the company would comply with the notice, Little – who won’t be interviewed – said through his PR company that an “agreed plan of action” was “currently being implemented across New Zealand. We are confident that we will have met all requirements within the notice on or before the due date.” He offered no details as to what actions were being implemented.

Mark Little, Aramex chief executive.

Asked whether the issue of fatigue would require changes to Aramex’s business model to address high driver workloads and low remuneration, Little was again unspecific. “[T]he focus has been on addressing factors known to contribute to, or increase, the potential for workplace fatigue.”

Little said the company had gone through a SafePlus health and safety review and engaged an external health and safety specialist to help with a “full review of all our current practices and policies”. This included a “deep dive into areas of risk like fatigue, driving and traffic management”.

The improvement notice follows WorkSafe’s initiation last year of an “abbreviated” Targeted Complex Intervention (TCI) with Aramex. The agency described this in an OIA response to Newsroom as a “proactive intervention” in a large business “with an established reputation and track record for under-performance with regards to health and safety”.

Oddly, Little claimed in his statement to Newsroom that WorkSafe had never implemented a TCI with Aramex, and that our previous reporting was wrong. However the agency said late last week that it planned to “meet with Aramex leadership next week to re-establish understanding of what an abbreviated TCI is”. It said the intended outcome of the TCI process was a “demonstrable lift in health, safety and wellbeing performance”. This involved “substantial work…[and] a significant amount of engagement with the PCBU [person conducting a business or undertaking], including several inspections and assessments over an extended period of time”

Exhaustion and stress

The Aramex business model sees individual courier franchisees operating under tight control from both regional franchisees, who own the rights to geographical territories, and company headquarters. Drivers have told Newsroom about being driven to the brink of suicide by the combination of exhaustion, stress and extremely low incomes. Many report earning well below the level of the minimum wage after taking their costs into account.

WorkSafe’s imposition of an improvement notice against Aramex follows numerous red flags from the company’s drivers. Drivers are classified as self-employed contractors and thus have no entitlement to sick leave, holidays, statutory breaks, minimum wage or other standard employment protections.

Late last year a driver notified Aramex that they would exercise their right to refuse to work on health and safety grounds, citing section 83 of the Act. This permits workers to cease or refuse work if they believe their health and safety or that of other people is at serious risk.

WorkSafe was copied in on the S.83 notice, which detailed the driver’s excessive hours, lack of breaks, and instances of falling asleep at the wheel.

WorkSafe officials also met in Taupo late last year with a group of drivers, including two who were seeking a declaration from the Employment Relations Authority that they were employees, and not independent contractors. The two women, Ahenata Rameka and Puawai Tito, told Newsroom in September of their intolerable workload, and of having to rely on the unpaid labour of family members to get through their daily parcel deliveries and picks-ups.

Another driver who attended the meeting with WorkSafe officials, Waka Hurihanganui, says the group told the agency of “fatigue, stress and fear of falling asleep at the wheel” as well as “low wages and bullying”.

Hurihanganui revealed to Newsroom this month he been pushed to the brink of suicide by his work for Aramex. At his wife’s urging he sought help through Lifeline, and also made a report through WorkSafe’s Mentally Healthy Work notification system detailing 13-14 hour days in return for pay that “doesn’t even cover my bills” and was “not even minimum wage”.

“I have lost focus and just wanting to drive into the oncoming trucks as I felt too helpless [sic],” he wrote to WorkSafe in his notification. “Working for Aramex is like hell. I have never felt so low in my life, the workload, the environment, the people is not a safe place to work.”

Hurihanganui says that when he purchased his run he wasn’t provided with all the relevant documentation, including the Aramex operations manual. He also recalled his despair when, unable to work while he and his family were sick with Covid, the regional franchisee hired six people to do the work he did singlehandedly and deducted $3000 from his earnings, including charging him for sorting parcels at the depot – work that he did daily for no pay as a franchisee. Hurihanganui provided Newsroom with documentation confirming that these deductions were made from his pay by the regional franchisee, Maylene and Charles Papuni.

Unwilling to sell his franchise to anyone else, and convinced the situation would not improve, Hurihanganui walked away from his Aramex run late last year. He lost the $20,000 he had invested in the franchise, but kept the delivery van he had purchased for $54,000, which now serves as the family car.

Rameka and Tito have also left the company, and have withdrawn their legal challenge to be classified as employees. This followed a settlement with Aramex late last year. They are barred under the terms of settlement from revealing any details.

The withdrawal of their challenge upon payment of a financial settlement parallels earlier battles by courier drivers to have the true nature of their work classified under Section 6 of the Employment Relations Act. In 2021, Auckland man Asneil Kumar had been the “last man standing” of 15 workers who mounted a challenge seeking to be classified as employees of New Zealand Post, but Kumar withdraw after the company offered a payout that was “incredibly hard” to refuse.

The position of dependent contractors such as couriers, Uber drivers, construction workers and cleaners was put under the microscope by a tripartite working group that reported in April last year. Workplace relations and safety minister Michael Wood has promised reform proposals to address the widespread misclassification of workers as contractors, which denies them basic employment rights. His office told Newsroom earlier this month that the Government was “currently finalising a set of proposals for public consultation”.

In the meantime this fraught area of employment law will face another test in coming weeks as the Court of Appeal considers an application from Uber for leave to appeal last year’s decision of the Employment Court declaring four Uber drivers to be employees and not contractors as the global rideshare company claims.

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