Action needed against Centrelink job threat, say workers
By Jim McIlroy
BRISBANE — Staff and community leaders have expressed outrage over reported plans by the federal government's social welfare delivery agency, Centrelink, to slash up to 6000 jobs.
Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) assistant national secretary Sally O'Loughlin on November 4 called the proposal "appalling" and warned that it would jeopardise services for many of Centrelink's 8 million clients.
"Since July 1997, 2000 jobs have been cut from Centrelink and, if these latest cuts proceed, it means the agency will have lost more than 8000 staff — that's one in three jobs", O'Loughlin said.
She drew attention to an Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) report released that day. It highlights "a disturbing rise in the demand for welfare services" due to high unemployment, funding cuts to welfare agencies and changes in government policy.
"The need for welfare services has not decreased. The problem is the Howard government's cost-cutting, and it is the unemployed and disadvantaged who are paying the price. Australia needs its social welfare safety net repaired. It does not need more holes slashed into it", O'Loughlin concluded.
The ACOSS report, Living on the Edge, revealed that private and community welfare agencies are being overwhelmed by the increased demand for assistance. Rising numbers of low-income earners are being turned away by welfare organisations as they struggle to cope with increased poverty.
Meanwhile, a new survey shows that most people prefer the federal government to scrap its planned income tax cuts or run a budget deficit, rather than cut services, if the economy slows.
The AC Nielsen survey shows 32% of respondents believe the government should dip into its budget surplus. Only 11% believe the government should cut spending on social security, health and education.
ACOSS president Michael Raper said on November 4 that job cuts in Centrelink would have devastating consequences for those in need.
The federal ALP's family and community services spokesperson, Wayne Swan, said the cuts would hurt aged pensioners, the disabled and the unemployed.
CPSU social security section secretary Mark Gepp said the decision to reduce staff further was extraordinary given that Centrelink was already "woefully underfunded".
"Centrelink staff are shocked and angry at reports of these latest cuts", CPSU South Australian section councillor Philippa Stanford told Green Left Weekly on November 6.
"The cuts have been forced on Centrelink by the Howard government's 'special efficiency dividend', which imposes a 10% reduction in funding on the organisation.
"The news of the planned job losses comes on top of release of Centrelink's new draft agency agreement, which launches a drastic attack on working conditions and imposes a real pay cut on staff.
"Centrelink is proposing a 2.5% pay rise over two years — and even that is subject to productivity rises. At current inflation levels, this is a reduction in wages. Commentators are forecasting a rise in inflation over that period."
That is not all, Stanford explained: "The Centrelink agreement proposes extensions in opening hours, restrictions on overtime payments, abolition of the December public service holiday, fixed working hours for new employees and a new staff classification system based on performance assessment alone — along with many other attacks on our conditions".
Stanford told Green Left Weekly that the section council will be meet on November 10, following the public release of Centrelink's restructure plan, to discuss the union's response.
"Given the severity of the attacks, whatever the final figure on job cuts in the plan, we must prepare for a concerted industrial campaign to defeat this assault", Stanford said.
"Taken together, these cutbacks and job losses are an insult to Centrelink staff", said Mark Cronin, Queensland social security section councillor and delegate at Brisbane's Annerley Centrelink office.
"Already, we are drowning under the workload at the customer service centres, and any further reduction of staff will seriously jeopardise our ability to provide an adequate service to the public", Cronin said.
"Centrelink staff have been pushed to the edge. We must now prepare to take a stand. The section council will have to consider actions such as mass stop-work meetings and serious strike action when our current agency bargain expires in the week beginning November 16 — when the 'protected industrial action' period begins under the federal Coalition government's workplace relations laws", Cronin told Green Left Weekly.
"The assault on conditions at Centrelink's telephone call centres is particularly severe under the proposed new agency agreement", Nick Everett, CPSU delegate at the Brisbane call centre, said on November 7.
"Scheduled working hours on the phone will be aggressively enforced, flextime abolished and opening hours extended, with new employees forced to accept hours determined by the employer without negotiation", Everett explained. "The strict monitoring of individual call numbers and 'quality' are also concerning staff at Centrelink call centres."
Urgent workplace meetings are to be held on November 9 at the Brisbane and other call centres to recommend strong action to the section council meeting on November 10.
"This is a challenge not only to Centrelink workers but to the entire Australian public service", Everett stressed. "It requires a vigorous response by the CPSU nationally, with united action in every section.
"Our union leadership failed to properly fight the Howard government's destruction of the CES last year. The CPSU cannot afford to go down the same road with its biggest agency, Centrelink.
"The CPSU national executive must launch a public service-wide campaign to defend jobs in Centrelink, in collaboration with allies in the community", Everett urged.
"The ACTU should lead on this issue as well. This attack on Centrelink jobs is a threat to the services provided to working people and the general public. The weakened Coalition government, lacking even the ghost of a mandate on this issue, can be defeated by a united and determined campaign of industrial and political action."