Perth bus drivers tell of threats, assaults and living in fear as union ponders industrial action

Bus drivers in Western Australia are facing abuse, threats, or assaults on a near daily basis, according to their union, which is threatening a campaign of industrial action if safety on buses is not improved.

The Transport Workers Union (TWU) held a summit this week following the alleged assault of a female bus driver in Victoria Park earlier this month, in which police say she was kicked and spat on.

The TWU has asked the government to fast-track the introduction of several safety measures it has been calling for, including:

  • Plastic screens to protect drivers from being spat on;
  • Making bus fares totally cashless;
  • Increasing the number of security guards protecting bus drivers and passengers.

Union member and bus driver of 12 years, Wendy Hamilton, said she believed anti-social behaviour on Perth buses was getting worse.

“I have personally been threatened with rape, my family have been threatened, I’ve been spat on, I’ve been abused, there’s too many times that I can count that has happened to me,” she said.

“We have a right to feel safe.”

‘Spit running down my collar’

Ms Hamilton said she loved driving a bus, and many passengers were “lovely” and “grateful” for the work she did, but instances of abuse were far too common.

“The government has to act now to keep all drivers safe. When is enough enough?” she said.

“I’m a grandmother, I don’t want to have to go home with a black eye.

“I don’t want to have to go home with spit running down my collar.”

A head shot of a man pictured in front of a screen
Bus driver Adam Vaughan-Williams says his job can be rewarding, but he often feels vulnerable.(ABC News: James Carmody)

Another driver, Adam Vaughan-Williams, said he was passionate about his job but lived in fear of people throwing rocks at his bus and of being assaulted.

“Driving a bus is very rewarding really, it’s a good profession, it pays very well and it’s a good job, you’ve just got to be careful,” he said.

“You can feel fairly vulnerable. It’s much better having that cage so you’ve got some protection, but that’s all there is.”

Cashless bus fares urged

Transperth buses are currently equipped with at least seven security cameras, as well as duress alarms for drivers.

Each bus also has a safety cab for drivers with mesh security screens, which the TWU has said does nothing to prevent near-daily occurrences of drivers being spat on.

Mr Vaughan-Williams said violent incidents were often sparked over disagreements about fares, which a cashless system would prevent.

A side view of Mr Dawson as he is speaking while wearing a white collared shirt and glasses
TWU state secretary Tim Dawson says the behaviour drivers have to endure is “disgraceful”.(ABC News: James Carmody)

A policy was introduced in WA during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic that change is not given for fares paid for in cash.

The government said the TWU had called for the policy at the time to prevent the spread of disease, but drivers say it now causes anger among passengers who want change.

“If they’ve got $50 and it’s a $2 fare, they’re not going to hand $50 over, so there’s angst about that,” TWU state secretary Tim Dawson said.

Industrial action threatened

Mr Dawson said if the government did not take the union’s requests seriously, its members may take industrial action.

“The government is on notice, as of today, to fix it,” he said.

“No one would like to go to work and be spat on, and no one out there should have that happen to them.

“It’s a disgraceful act to spit on someone.”

A group of bus drivers in uniform protesting outside a bus depot.
The union says the government has been put on notice that industrial action is possible if urgent action is not taken.(ABC News: Nicolas Perpitch)

Mr Dawson said such incidents put a huge strain on the mental health of drivers and being spat on often lead to a nervous wait for blood test results to confirm illnesses had not been passed on.

“It’s not a great way to attract people into an industry – ‘come and work for us, you’ll be spat on, smacked in the mouth, and maybe abused before the day is out’,” he said.

Safety screen trial to begin

A state government spokesman said Transport Minister Rita Saffioti met with TWU representatives late last year and would continue to work with the union to improve safety for bus drivers.

A Transperth bus on Guilford Road in Mt Lawley with a bus stop beside it.
The TWU says bus drivers are assaulted or threatened on a near daily basis.(ABC News: James Carmody)

“The safety of our bus drivers continues to be a priority for the government,” he said.

“At the request of the Transport Workers Union, the state government will begin a trial within the next few weeks of new safety glass driver protection screens, and have also implemented new operational policies that minimise potentially contentious interactions between bus drivers and passengers.”

Facilities to allow passengers to ‘tap on’ to a bus by paying their fare with a bank card are set to be tested this year and rolled out by the year’s end if successful.

But the government has not said whether moving to a totally cashless system will be considered.

Community ‘angry’: police chief

The TWU did not provide figures on driver assaults but said the data was difficult to obtain.

The state government and WA Police also said they were not aware of statistics indicating an increase in assaults on bus drivers.

“From a policing perspective, we will work with the Department of Transport to identify if there is a trend. I haven’t been briefed on a trend of that occurring, I know we’ve had spikes of it in the past,” Police Commissioner Col Blanch said.

A wide shot of WA Police Commissioner Col Blanch standing in front of microphones outside ABC Perth.
Col Blanch says the whole community is angry about assaults on bus drivers.(ABC News: James Carmody)

“We all want our public sector drivers, particularly of buses and other transport, to be safe, I think that’s a no-brainer and something we should all be focused on.

“A huge number of Western Australians get to work because these people sit there driving and looking after our community every day, they don’t expect to get assaulted.

“So I know the whole community, including the police commissioner, is angry about anyone that assaults our public transport drivers.”

The 32-year-old woman accused of punching a bus driver in Victoria Park on January 12 appeared in Perth Magistrates Court briefly yesterday and was not required to enter a plea. She is due in court again next month.

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