Telstra workers face uncertain future


LEO WALLIN works in Telstra's commercial and consumer business unit as a customer sales representative. He spoke to Green Left Weekly's JAMES VASSILOPOULOS about Telstra's new work regime and the enterprise bargaining proposal.

Wallin says working in Telstra's front line is extremely pressured with the company always seeking to increase work performance and productivity. In the area where Wallin works a competency based system requires each worker to show they have certain skills. If they do not have the skills, they are meant to get training.

But this is resulting in only a small minority of workers receiving pay rises. Wallin said that in the last assessment only 20% of workers went up to the next wage tier; 80% did not pass the skills test. "This has been one of the whipping tools management uses", Wallin said.

Another source of insecurity is the new accountability procedures. Wallin said that every month he must sit down with his supervisor and discuss his performance. Accountability is set at individual, team and centre levels. There is a never ending drive for productivity increases in sales, the number of calls a representative answers, the speed at which phones are answered and the number of customers won back from Optus.

In some centres, workers are given figures on their own productivity each morning. Wallin said that this use of statistics "is completely over the top. It's intimidation. There is an incredible amount of data and statistic collection about workers' performance. The surveillance includes the number of seconds between calls, the average handling time, and the time to complete a sale."

Wallin has heard horrible stories around the traps of "immediate supervisors ringing up workers who had called in sick to check that they were sick and asking them, 'When are we next going to see you?'".

Telstra and unions are negotiating a new enterprise bargaining agreement. Wallin said that one of management's proposals is to do away with appeal mechanisms. "They want a 'three strikes and your out' system where you first get a verbal warning, then a written warning and then dismissal. You can be dismissed for inadequate performance; they have bought productivity into the dismissal process", he said. As well, if a worker is deemed not to be functioning adequately as part of a team, they can be sacked.

Unionists are likely to victimised, Wallin believes. "All Community and Public Sector Union delegates are subject to the accountability process, to the competency based system and to the discipline process. Telstra has issued their interpretation of a union's right to entry. Industrial democracy is out, and taking advantage of Peter Reith's industrial laws is in."

Telstra's agenda for enterprise bargaining includes an increase in the time spread of ordinary hours so that they can pay less overtime, slash allowances and reduce awards and agreements.

The CPSU's response to these attacks, Wallin said, has been to abstain. "Where they could not negotiate anything significant, with these new accountability measures for instance, they rolled over and had joint implementation sessions."

An example for the union's willingness to surrender was its national survey on flexi-time. Ninety-one percent of workers wanted to have flexi-time or to take rostered days off, yet the CPSU said that Telstra should "balance workers' needs and business needs". They will give in to Telstra, Wallin predicts.

Telstra employee relations manager and ex-Rio Tinto manager Rob Cartwright argues that current awards have too many words — some 330,000 — and that they are too complex. But Wallin said Telstra does not want to simplify awards, it wants to destroy them. "They want to increase the hours we work, reduce the amount of overtime and move to a much more casual and part-time work force. But people have lives outside of work. This will make it harder for women to work, because of their family responsibilities", Wallin explained.

Telstra plans to sack 25,000 workers — one in every three Telstra employees. In one year it has reduced its work force by 10,000. "Where I work there is massive under-staffing; 30% of the calls are not answered. To me, that means we should have 30% more staff but the CPSU has never called for increased staff levels", Wallin said.