CPSU slams Centrelink call centre outsourcing

CPSU national secretary Nadin Flood says the union has been calling for more permanent Centrelink staff for years.

The Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) says that contracting another 1000 private call centre operators to answer calls to Centrelink will not fix the problems caused by the federal government’s damaging cuts to the agency.

Minister for Human Services Michael Keenan announced on April 23 the introduction of another 1000 low-paid and insecure jobs, on top of the 250 positions currently generating a profit for multinational company Serco.

CPSU national secretary Nadine Flood said: “We’ve been calling loudly for years for more permanent Centrelink call centre staff to replace the more than 5000 jobs the government has slashed in this department. Instead, the government is continuing to sell the agency off piece by piece, lining the pockets of their corporate mates like Serco, rather than putting that money into wages and secure jobs for call centre workers.

“Centrelink service standards have been falling since the first day of this government. You don’t need to be Einstein to see that cutting 5000 jobs — and they’re still cutting more even today — and then adding 1250 privatised positions through a profit-making multinational isn’t going to fix this.”

Serco's contract, which began in October last year, will cost the government $51.7 million over three years and does not include the 1000 new operators announced on April 23. The expansion would be funded from within Human Services' existing budget, Keenan said.

He refused to reveal when the new operators would start or how much it will cost, saying it would be put out to tender, although experts say it will cost the government at least $200 million.

When asked why the government would not employ public servants to answer its calls instead, Keenan said he did not believe the staff would be needed long-term.

Nearly 1200 jobs were cut from the Department of Human Services, which includes Centrelink, in last year's federal budget. Flood accused the government of paying call centre contractors to "click through" calls to improve its statistics, without resolving clients' problems.

She said: “Our members in Centrelink are telling us the Serco call centre is being used to fudge the damning stats on wait times and missed calls to Centrelink, rather than actually improving the situation for people trying to get their situation resolved. Serco’s role is to answer as many calls as possible, and actually helping clients takes more time, more training and gets in the way of that.”

“Outsourcing like this isn’t just bad for Centrelink clients, but for the people employed by Serco and other profit-making providers when they should have permanent jobs directly with the department. Serco workers have told us about their poor working conditions, low wages and completely inadequate training. These people are being paid less so Serco can profit more.”  

Labor’s Human Services spokesperson Linda Burney said it was "nonsense" that 1000 contract workers could clear a backlog of calls. "Centrelink needs permanent full-time staff who are familiar with and equipped to deal with the complex circumstances facing income-support recipients," she said on April 23.

Greens Senator Rachel Siewert said using a private company to reduce Centrelink call wait times created serious privacy concerns.

"It is nonsensical to use a private company when there are casual staff in the department who could be made permanent to help reduce call wait times. The private information of Australians accessing the social safety net is at risk in the hands of a private company," she said.

Flood said: “[This] announcement is another example of a damaging and cynical tactic often employed by conservative politicians. The [Malcolm] Turnbull government has cut and cut at Centrelink and is now trying to use the appalling service standards it has caused as justification for privatising a critical public service.

"The Joint Committee of Public Accounts and Audit continues to uncover damning examples across Commonwealth agencies of this government’s addiction to inefficient and opaque arrangements using contractors, consultants and labour hire.”