.Regulation stretched thin
When you move house, you trust removal companies not to break, lose or steal your stuff – or jack up the price when they deliver it. But that trust is often on shaky ground.
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In 2011, Fair Trading NSW received 300 complaints about removalists – more than one every working day on average. (Things aren’t quite as bad in Queensland, where the Office of Fair Trading received 116 complaints last year.) Removalists are required by law to provide services with “due care and skill” and within a “reasonable” time frame.
How often these basic consumer rights are observed is another question. Consumers who contacted CHOICE reported a wide range of dodgy conduct on the part of removalists, some of it bordering on criminal.
Regulation exists, but not every removalist takes part. The Australian Furniture Removers Association (AFRA) has 270 members, including big names such as Allied Pickfords, Wridgways, Grace, Kent, Crown, Chess Moving, the AMG Group and Australian Vanlines. AFRA’s marketing manager Jan Hanley admits the self-regulating body has a long way to go towards establishing safeguards that will prevent cowboys from giving the whole industry a bad name.
AFRA’s longterm goal is to professionalise the industry from top to bottom. “The way it works now, anyone with a friend and a truck can start a company,” she says. “There should be rules against that.”
Cowboys on the move
Hanley says the removalist industry generates about $1 billion annually through around one million moves of varying size and distance, three-quarters of which are handled by AFRA members. It’s the other quarter that she believes is the cause for concern. NSW Fair Trading may be fielding complaints on a daily basis, but AFRA had only eight complaints about members on its books as of mid- March this year. By Hanley's logic, most of the NSW complaints aren’t about AFRA members.
To gain AFRA membership, removalists have to post a $2000 bond and undergo an initial audit, another audit a year later, and then regular audits every four years. AFRA makes sure companies are up to standard in areas including maintenance of vehicles, appropriate packing materials, first aid kits for staff, driver fatigue management and police checks for every employee.
Hanley claims members almost always cooperate and resolve legitimate complaints. “They abide by the dispute resolution process because they need the repeat business. And if they don’t do the right thing, we can take it out of their bond and suspend their membership.”
But neither the auditing process nor AFRA’s code of conduct addresses the issues that give rise to most complaints – damage to property, bad service and overcharging (though AFRA’s training program does aim to prevent this). As it stands, consumers can only hope to steer clear by taking a close look at the removalist service before signing a contract.
But even AFRA’s standard contract, which members must use, seems tilted in favour of the remover. For instance, it absolves the remover of liability for damaged goods unless the damage results from the ambiguously worded “want of due care and skill”.
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