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Issue #1534      8 February 2012

Should trade unions struggle? (Part 2)

For unity in struggle

The following abridged article is the contribution made by trade union activist Elizabeth el Sayer at a meeting of trade unionists organised by the Communist Party of Australia towards the end of 2011. The theme of the meeting was “Should trade unions struggle?”

I would like to expose some ways finance sector workers struggle on a day-to-day basis. From my experience I could assert that the main issues affecting these workers are: job insecurity, unfair wages, pressure to perform, micro-management and bullying and harassment.

But why do finance workers feel insecure in their jobs?

I thought I would illustrate the answer to this question with some of the latest movements by finance institutions (from FSU updates). This is by no means an extensive list.

After declaring a $7 billion profit Westpac announced nearly 200 job cuts. The job cuts are part of an 18-month program of reducing Westpac positions and replacing those positions with outsourced and offshore providers.

National Australia Bank declared a major restructure after announcing a rise in their earnings of 11.5 percent to give a $5.5 billion profit. This restructure will result in more than 500 workers having to reapply for their jobs and 135 disappearing from the network.

Finally, at the same time as the Queensland Floods Commission of Inquiry is quizzing insurance bosses about claims processing and complaints handling, Suncorp is preparing to shift Australian insurance jobs offshore in search of higher profits. It has been reported in the Australian Financial Review that other insurers may follow suit. The number of jobs in scope for offshoring is still to be confirmed but some reports indicate that thousands of Australian jobs may be at risk.

Do you want me to go into the rationale given by the various finance organisations? At the end of the day, this is globalisation at its maximum splendour, where employers talk about efficiency and cost savings while people end up losing their jobs affecting the whole internal economy, not only in their households but in the country, not only in the short-term but also in the long run.

Low paid

Moving onto the next issue, how do finance workers get paid?

The way most finance workers get paid is composed by their basic salary plus any bonuses they may get, determined by how they perform their work.

For example, when you go to a branch to do a transaction the teller may ask you if you want to open another account or even get a credit card. If you accept, that becomes part of their achievement, and if they get enough referrals in the buckets determined by the bank, then they’ll be able to achieve their targets, thus get a bonus at the end of the month or the quarter depending which bank we are talking about.

Depending on the current agreement, usually between the employer and the union (there is one per institution and the union is not always part of it), workers may be entitled to a guaranteed pay increase, which allows their salary to keep up with the increase in the cost of living. In other finance institutions, in fact, most of them, workers have a stagnant pay which is complemented by any bonuses they may get if they achieve their targets.

The question is, is this mechanism to push debt into society ethical? The simple answer is NO, especially now in the current economic climate. Is it the workers’ fault? The answer is NO again. At the end of the day workers are only trying to make a decent living. Finance workers are so-called white collar workers. The difference with other workers is in the colour of the collar. Every worker strives and struggles for decent working conditions and a dignified income.

Some people have the impression that finance workers earn a lot of money but dealing with them on a daily basis I can assert that this is not the case at all. If we compare a CEO’s salary to other finance workers, CEOs earn 200 times the salary of a Customer Service Representative. How can a system allow a CEO to be worth 200 tellers?

So, what sort of indicators do finance institutions use to measure workers’ performance?

Let’s take customer satisfaction. The bank’s rationale is that customer satisfaction indicates customer loyalty and predicts profitable growth. However, this is also used to measure workers’ performance. The problem with this approach is that customers may give a low rating because they had to wait for too long (a clear indication of under-staffing) or are unhappy about the bank’s decision to increase the interest rate, which is absolutely beyond the bank workers’ control.

Also, finance workers’ performance is assessed by both objective and subjective criteria. Apart from targets, which I’ve spoken earlier on, workers have targets like “being a team player”, which is evaluated at their manager’s discretion. I remember in one of my workplace visits to a branch, I learnt that one of the expectations for personal bankers was “to be a champion”. When I asked what that meant, I was told that that was when the customer’s response is “Wow!” because of the service they received.

Finally, the frequency with which members contact the union raising issues around bullying and harassment is enormous. How can we live in so much fear and apprehension? Workers in call centres get timed when they go to the toilet and they may get in trouble if they take too long. I remember one worker who was asked to specify in writing why she took so long at the toilet, she wrote “I did a poo”.

Not only their jobs are constantly in the firing-line, their performance objectives increase at management’s discretion, they don’t have any certainty on whether they’ll have a pay increase. Also they may be called into a meeting with no witnesses to be harassed and intimidated by seniors who want to see better dividends as these would count towards their own performance.

This is how finance workers struggle on a daily basis. They are constantly targeted, individualised, alienated and intimidated in this super competitive industry. And what do employers do? They organise, they talk to each other, they plan how to influence the new post-modern god, the market.

How do they do that? Do you think the latest NAB campaign about breaking up with the other banks was real? Well, let me tell you it wasn’t because the Big Four is a myth. Banks are not independent entities; they own each other and this becomes the conglomeration of capital at its best.

Conclusion

The only way for workers to struggle is to struggle in unity. When finance workers realise they are not the only ones affected by the issues I just mentioned (which are by no means the only ones) but also their colleagues sitting next to them, the ones they share their breaks with, then a new sentiment of solidarity will emerge and then the workers will be the ones conglomerating.

The point is workers ought to receive a larger percentage of the final product that is made as we are the majority in any society. We, the workers, demand social justice where the wealth of any nation is shared on an equal basis with all its members.

In conclusion, it is therefore imperative that we activists in the trade union movement maintain the rage, educate others and educate ourselves, continue being active and activating other members in the community wherever we are.  

Next article – Equal Pay – Vigilance required

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