Smash repair industry feels the squeeze

A DISPUTE with Hunter panel beaters has led insurer Suncorp to send damaged vehicles to Sydney for repair to try to ease delays of a month or more in getting damaged cars back on the road.

Suncorp says the cars were sent to Sydney because Hunter panel beaters were unable to do the work but the repair shops say they were never offered the work.

Sending damaged cars to Sydney is the latest step in a long-running dispute between Suncorp and Country North Vehicle Repairers Association, which represents about 60 per cent of Hunter panel beaters.

Suncorp says it has finished sending vehicles to Sydney, after two weeks, and assessment times are back to normal.

But association president Gary Mamic says any "solution" is only temporary because Suncorp is sticking with its policy of having all damaged cars sent to a yard at Gateshead to be assessed for tender by competing panel beaters.

"At what Suncorp allows you to charge it is not economically viable and time-efficient to travel to the centre, provide a quote and then travel back to pick up any jobs you have 'won'," Mr Mamic said.

Suncorp was squeezing Hunter panel beaters at a time when the industry was reeling from staff losses to the mines, he said.

Mr Mamic released a recent letter from Suncorp that suggested "immigrant labour" as an answer to the problems.

"We don't want to have to bring people in on 457 visas," Mr Mamic said.

"We want Suncorp to recognise that it can't keep squeezing people. NRMA tried these same tactics in 2005 but dropped them after nine months because it saw what it was doing to the industry."

Suncorp has about a dozen brands, including AAMI and GIO, and has more than 40 per cent of the NSW market.

Suncorp claims manager Craig Summers said it had been an "out-of-the-ordinary couple of weeks".

"When local repairers told us they didn't have the capacity, we put contingency plans in place to ensure our customers didn't have to wait for repairs," Mr Summers said.

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