The theft of Telstra


The theft of Telstra

The Senate vote to privatise more of Telstra is another theft of public assets and is not in the interests of consumers or telecommunications workers.

Last year, Telstra made a net profit of $3 billion, and it is expected to increase this by another $600 million this financial year. Profits have been made through ruthless cost cutting that has resulted in thousands of lost jobs and a significant deterioration in working conditions for those who are left.

To justify the privatisation of 33% of Telstra less than two years ago, the government claimed that proceeds of the sale would go to environmental and heritage projects. Of course, nothing real came of this. But we are going to get two weeks of Olympic Games in Sydney with Telstra as the major sponsor.

This time round, to sell another 16.6% slice (making Telstra 49.6% privately owned), the government had to introduce "social bonus" into the vocabulary and more than double its bribe to "independent" Senators Harradine and Colston in order to rush through the privatisation bill.

The $1 billion bribe includes establishing call centres in regional areas hard hit by high unemployment. Far from the comfort of parliament's leather seats and silver cutlery, call centres are best described as modern sweatshops where the length of calls is measured in seconds, and workers are pestered and "performance managed" until they leave (the average turnover of staff in call centres is around 18 months).

Colston was quoted in the June 22 Sydney Morning Herald as saying that there had been a "remarkable change" in Telstra's corporate culture, and that there was a new "culture of consultation and proactive involvement of staff". If he is referring to the introduction of individual contracts down to lower management level, he's right. Staff are indeed consulted. You get to read the Australian Workplace Agreement, you get to think about it, and you sign it or you don't get the job!

The partial sale of Telstra should be another wake-up call to the unions. In the lead-up to initial privatisation, the slogan of the Community and Public Sector Union was "You can float Telstra, but don't sink the workers". At the time, the CPSU saw it as a victory that Telstra had given staff 200 free shares (never mind the fact that every single taxpayer, including Telstra workers, were already owners of the public utility). Even if a worker could cash the shares in today, they wouldn't pay for a seat in a corporate box at the Olympics!

Since the federal government's campaign to privatise Telstra has been waged, not a single workplace meeting, community rally or even media stunt has been conducted against the privatisation. This is a crime. The real sell-outs are the trade union leaders from the ACTU down. The ALP, which dominates the Telstra unions' leaderships, has proved that it is not against privatisation and has failed to stop the sackings, the individual contracts and the workplace harassment by the Telstra boss.

Ignoring the inspiring aspects of the Maritime Union dispute, the ALP has failed to mobilise community opposition to the most stark example of public assets theft in our history.

Contrary to the Telstra advertising jingle, the sale of Australia's public telecommunications utility will not make life easier for workers or the consumer. It will further enrich a relative handful of individuals and corporations at the expense of the rest of us.