Quebec’s guide

by Carroll McCormick

MONTREAL, Que. – The phrase “contract guidelines” has a nice ring to it, but the plan by ComCar and the Ontario Trucking Association to introduce them in Ontario hasn’t a prayer of succeeding. At least, that is the prediction by Daniel Brulotte, the president of the Association des Proprietaires de Camions Remorques Independants du Quebec (APCRIQ), a Quebec owner/operator association.

Brulotte was there when Quebec developed its own set of 14 contract guidelines, known as minimum clauses. He saw them become legislation in March 1995, when written contracts became obligatory. He designed a sample contract for his members and he tried to educate them on how to use it.

He says the guidelines were ineffective for the next four years until 1999, when they disappeared beneath the advancing wave of Bill 430.

And in case it is possible to do worse than merely fail, Brulotte believes that contract guidelines have even less chance of succeeding in Ontario without the benefit of legislation to get carriers’ attention. “What does ‘the ministry’s blessing’ mean?” says Brulotte, referring to ComCar president Art Joosse’s statement of the Ontario Ministry of Transportation’s support. “We had it in legislation and it didn’t work,” Brulotte declares.

Leo Van Tuyl, chairman of the Ontario Trucking Association’s Professional Driver/Owner-Operator Forum, thinks Quebec’s project failed because its carriers were not willing partners to the legislation. “We want the two partners to sit down and say ‘these are the issues’ we want addressed. “

Brulotte acknowledges that the carriers were not physically at the table when APCRIQ was working with the government on the issue, but, he says, “I’m sure these issues were discussed with representatives of the carriers.”

The Quebec legislation was to lead to transparent contracts, the details of which would be out in the open for everyone to see and understand.

Apart from some of the Quebec clauses that forbade certain practices, such as putting holdbacks into a carrier’s general revenues, the goal in Ontario seems little different from Quebec’s. Says Van Tuyl: “What we are really saying is the problem is usually the absence of specifications. If it doesn’t say it in the contract, it goes to the owner/operator. (We’re saying that) when you sign a contract with the carrier, make sure it covers the issues.”

Quebec’s minimum clauses had to specify what rate adjustments were agreed upon for fuel increases, driving with more axles, or sudden cost increases. The cost of using a carrier fuel card or garage services had to be spelled out. Who would pay tolls, the agreed contract price and the contract length had to be spelled out. The amount of holdback had to be in writing, as did a guarantee that it would not become part of a carrier’s general revenue. Clause 11 guaranteed freedom of choice to the owner/operator for all products or services he needed to run his business, including the choice of insurer.

After digging around in a filing cabinet in his Lachine office for a few moments, Brulotte emerges with a cardboard box overflowing with documents. Most of them are actual contracts, some about 30 pages long, drawn up by carriers after Quebec passed legislation in March 1995-“screwy contracts” worded to satisfy the legal requirements of the legislation, but stipulating conditions favorable to the carriers.

The legislation forced carriers to adjust their contracts, but according to Brulotte the changes were mostly in form, not content. Some carriers played by the rules, says Brulotte, “but very, very few.” Without legislation, adds Brulotte, Ontario carriers wouldn’t even have to pretend to comply.

An old contract might have read, “The owner/operator must choose carrier insurance.” This clause would be replaced with, “The owner/operator freely accepts and chooses the carrier insurance,” which, Brulotte points out, offers no choice at all.

Brulotte thought a minimum contract was important and necessary. “We’ve seen cases where the guy had to buy fuel from the carrier yard at, for example, 58 cents a litre instead of the going rate of 45 cents. You’d be surprised how many people did this.”

Or take insurance. “We knew a company that was paying $225,000 a year in insurance for the whole company. The carrier had about 60 owner/operators, paying $8,000 each.” The owners were about one-seventh of the carrier’s fleet, but were paying double the company’s entire cost of insurance. Clause 14 forced the insurer to show the owner/operator exactly how the insurance was calculated for the carrier.

According to Brulotte, it wasn’t for lack of trying that the plan failed. “The minister came to our congress. It was very much publicized. We did as much as we could to make our members use it.” Magazine articles were written on the topic. Transports Quebec gave seminars on the new legislation.

“Some of the guys, the ones with more guts, did OK,” acknowledges Brulotte. They did get things like better rates and lower insurance premiums under the new regulations. But the minimum clauses schemes failed for two main reasons, he explains. First, carriers were able to get away with avoiding the spirit of the regulations, “because the guys were not informed.”

The second reason, he says, is that, “the guys did not want to inform themselves. They were not able to take their destiny in their own hands. You have no idea how many unprofessional people there are out there. It didn’t work because they don’t care. They are (such poor) businessmen that they won’t even read what’s in their grasp.”

These concerns are not lost on Van Tuyl, who says, “The problem we really have in the end is whether the owner/operator is going to read this. He’s got to understand he’s got a business and he has business responsibility.”

As for the chances of contract guidelines succeeding in Ontario, Brulotte just shakes his head. “I am 80 per cent sure I could get the clauses back in Bill 430, but I know it won’t work.”

As for the Com-Car and OTA effort, Brulotte tries to be charitable, saying, “I wish them good luck. I can’t be against anything that might be helpful.” OK, so why would knowledgeable industry leaders float the idea in Ontario after it crashed in Quebec?

Van Tuyl believes the timing is right for contract guidelines, which could be used as a tool to compare the relative offerings of different carriers. “The only way I can see that we can accomplish something is that in the economic climate we are operating in, we are running out of people,” he says.

“Carriers will be selling this, the ones with the most transparent contracts. I want the carriers to be buying into this big time.” n

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