By Steve Rogers and June McKay
CANBERRA — Despite union claims, an agreement before public servants in the Department of Employment, Education and Training provides no guarantees of job security. The Public Sector Union national leadership had attempted to rush through voting on the 49 pages of proposals in the first week of June.
The issue under discussion is the Services and Structures Review, which fundamentally revises the structures of DEET and its Commonwealth Employment Service network. The proposal is also known as the Halstead Review.
This restructure will abolish existing state offices and replace them with area offices. While DEET union members have a range of views on the advantages of such a restructure, the agreements being presented provide no guarantee for the continuation of existing service levels or jobs.
A May 27 letter from PSU national secretary Peter Robson claimed that the agreement on human resources management related to the review includes "no compulsory redundancies or redeployment" under the Services and Structures Review.
What the agreement actually says is "The Department will endeavour to manage change without utilising the compulsory provisions of the RRR Award". The Retirement and Redeployment (Redundancy) Award covers redundancies in the public service and clearly allows for sacking staff, or "involuntary redundancies", as the government euphemistically calls it.
In addition, the agreement states that "variation from this Agreement will be considered in exceptional circumstances".
Since the national leadership of the PSU has already pushed through a DEET agency bargaining agreement which guarantees that the union will under all circumstances meet any restructuring timetable imposed by Labor or Liberal federal governments, the entire arrangement amounts to: the government promises not to sack staff unless it wants to. (In fact, the agency bargaining agreement states on the issue of the Halstead Review, "This clause relates to job protection and the wording is not settled".)
The impact of the changes on DEET and CES operations is yet to be seen. In particular, the decision to group geographically dispersed areas appears certain to cause a reduction in services.
For example, there appears to be a high likelihood that services in regional centres such as Canberra will be closed and their functions moved to other regional centres several hundred kilometres away. The commitment under the Halstead Review is to rationalise rather than to improve services.
DEET PSU members were originally given a June 9 deadline by the PSU national office to vote on the proposal, which none had seen before early June. Following an ACT delegates' decision to allow members time to read the document, the national delegates' committee decided that the national officials' timetable was too short, and moved the date to June 16.
At this stage DEET members are facing the same problem as that of PSU members at Defence: an agency bargain has thrown away their main chance of defending conditions in the face of huge restructuring, and they are now faced with a series of rearguard actions to defend conditions traded off by PSU national officials.
In some agencies, however, progress on agency bargaining negotiations has frozen. In addition to the Department of Social Security members' decision to put the process on hold, small agencies are also having reservations. In late May PSU members in the Australian International Development Assistance Bureau (AIDAB) voted overwhelmingly to suspend negotiations on their agreement.