The Guardian March 8, 2000


At Centrelink:
Big Brother is watching the E-Mail

In Adelaide six call-centre workers employed by the Federal Government's 
employment agency, Centrelink, have been summarily dismissed for their 
personal use of the electronic mail system.

The reason given for the dismissals is that the communications are said to 
have included pornographic material. The matter is now being hotly 
contested by the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU), with a view to 
reinstatement of the staff concerned.

However, the case raises fundamental issues for workers everywhere, of 
which the matter of pornography is the least significant.

Some of the most hallowed and respectable broadcasting institutions now 
feature material that is strictly classifiable as pornographic, to heighten 
the dramatic or humorous qualities of a program.

It seems hardly credible that Centrelink would divert precious resources to 
track the use of pornographic material by staff, which would be the 
equivalent of eavesdropping on phone calls to detect the use of four letter 
words.

The formal justification given for the Adelaide dismissals was the alleged 
violation of the Commonwealth Public Service Act. However, it is not at all 
clear that the Act covers use of the E-Mail.

Since its introduction, Centrelink management has encouraged the widespread 
use of E-Mail by staff as a means of communication, in preference to use of 
telephones.

The Centrelink Chief Executive Officer recently sent a message to staff 
throughout Australia via the E-Mail. (Communication by this system now 
dominates for the Centrelink call-centre workers in particular.)

Centrelink guidelines on staff behaviour do not clarify the issue of abuse 
of the E-Mail system either.

In fact, some staff members feel that the management actually prefers to 
have no guidelines on the matter since they themselves make extensive and 
relatively uninhibited personal use of the system.

The line between personal and work-related use of the system has certainly 
been blurred at times by management. One branch manager is said to have 
sent a message to his staff which included details of his proposed weekend 
activities, including his attendance at football matches!

Moreover, personal communication by E-Mail is similar to personal use of 
phones, which has long been regarded by Centrelink and many other agencies 
as acceptable, provided the calls are local and are not prolonged.

Since the Adelaide case surfaced, at least one Centrelink branch manager 
has reassured staff that they may make reasonable use of the E-Mail for 
personal matters, and there is no suggestion that the Adelaide employees 
made excessive personal use of the system.

But there are even more issues emerging from the Adelaide sackings and 
similar occurrences elsewhere.

The first is the potential for invasion of privacy through personal 
surveillance. The employees in the Centrelink call centre are among the 
most heavily monitored workers in Australia.

A disturbing revelation arising from the Adelaide case is that Centrelink 
actually maintains a work group in Canberra, known throughout Centrelink as 
the "E-Mail Police", to monitor the use of E-Mail by staff.

Their formal responsibility is to check on activation of major Centrelink 
client files, but the Adelaide case raises the possibility of this group 
being used for general surveillance of all E-Mail use.

Given the widespread acceptance of personal use of the E-Mail system by 
Centrelink employees, such surveillance would be equivalent to 
eavesdropping on phone calls, in effect a clear violation of employee 
privacy.

An equally disturbing issue is that of summary punishment. It appears that 
the first the Adelaide employees knew about their alleged violation of the 
law was when the Commonwealth police arrived at their desks, followed 
almost immediately by their dismissal.

There was apparently no counselling or investigation of the applicability 
of law, and no assessment of the issues involved. In terms of employment, 
CPSU's Community Services Secretary, Mark Gepp, equates this to Breaker 
Morant's "Rule 303" for summary execution of opponents.

A third issue is the potential for political persecution of employees 
through the issue of personal calls.

One staff member employed by a private firm is said to have been dismissed 
for circulating an E-Mail invitation to colleagues to join a rally in 
support of independence for East Timor last year.

Centrelink is an embattled organisation, with grim prospects for survival 
under a hostile Coalition Government.

The Government's recent dismemberment of the Centrelink organisation has 
seriously disadvantaged many of those who depended on its services, and the 
E-Mail sackings resemble in microcosm the Government's treatment of 
Centrelink itself.

The effect of the sackings has been to increase staff insecurity and 
resentment and drive down morale. This is hardly the way to ensure the 
retention of the organisation, but then, perhaps that wasn't the intention.

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