The Guardian November 21, 2001


Telco treachery

by Andrew Jackson

Company collapses and treacherous mass sackings without notice are two of 
the warning signs of a telecommunications industry in turmoil. In the past 
month alone Vodafone, Optus and Orange have announced they are slashing a 
further 2435 positions. Unions have dragged all three companies before the 
Australian Industrial Relations Commission (IRC) in a bid to save jobs and 
preserve workers' rights.

"It is appalling that the standard method for workers in the 
telecommunications industry to receive notice of redundancy is through the 
media", said Mark Brownlow, spokesperson for the Communications, Electrical 
and Plumbing Union (CEPU).

"They appear to be taking an absolutely minimalist view of their legal 
responsibilities under the Workplace Relations Act, not to mention their 
broader social responsibilities as employer in a major industry", said Mr 
Colin Cooper, President of the Communications Division.

Unions say they have been left with "no choice" but to take action through 
the IRC.

At a hearing last Wednesday Vodafone denied that they had made a decision 
to reduce staff, but this was in clear contradiction to "leaked" public 
statements made by the company to the media and signed by CEO Graham Maher.

IRC Commissioner Greg Smith rejected Vodafone's claims as "sophistry" and 
ordered the company not to retrench any employees until genuine discussions 
had been held with the unions.

A spokesperson for the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) said, "In 
the short term it [the IRC decision] has brought immediate relief to many 
anxious Vodafone workers. In the longer term it sends a strong message to 
employers about the importance of properly consulting staff and their 
unions".

This follows a similar ruling against Orange/Hutchison the previous week. 
The company has now promised that in future it will consult with unions at 
least two weeks before any new redundancy announcements are made.

Optus announced another 350 job cuts last week (now 910 in total), and this 
week the company is to also appear before the IRC.

The CEPU asked Optus to explain what criteria they were using to decide 
which people would be retrenched, and to give assurances they would accept 
volunteer redundancies before "simply showing employees the door". The 
union took action after Optus failed to comply with either of those 
requests.

The unions say a primary focus is to minimise job loses, and that proper 
consultation would allow them to put forward alternative proposals. The 
CPSU says it will go over all redundancy plans with "a fine-toothed comb" 
to save every job possible.

Agreement is being sought whereby all companies first try to find positions 
for displaced staff in other parts of their operations; or in the case of 
departments being outsourced, that employees be allowed to follow their 
jobs to the new company.

Unions are demanding that companies then offer voluntary redundancies 
before arbitrarily making dismissals. Agreement has been reached with 
Orange on this issue and unions hope that Optus and Vodaphone will follow 
suit.

With the re-election of the Howard Government, the CEPU now has grave fears 
of massive layoffs under a fully privatised Telstra.

The union says that during the privatisation discussions, "We were 
constantly told that the skilled employees shed by Telstra to please 
financial markets would easily find work elsewhere".

"Those claims look pretty hollow now."

CPA General Secretary Peter Symon said that workers and their unions face a 
very difficult task to defend workers' jobs in the face of the decided 
economic recession that is already affecting many industries and the 
technological changes which are being used to destroy jobs.

He noted however, that there seems to be an all-too-ready acceptance of the 
inevitability of job losses and that the best that can be done is to insist 
on voluntary redundancies and that entitlements be paid, important as these 
issues are.

"We have just seen figures of the large amount of unpaid overtime being 
worked across the workforce and it seems that little has been done about 
this growing appalling situation.

"There has also been the virtual abandonment of the 35-hour week objective 
of the trade union movement and, because there has been a lack of 
commitment by many unions to campaign on the hours question, employers have 
found it easy to impose longer working hours and unpaid overtime", said 
Peter Symon.

"It is encouraging to see that some trade unions are beginning to tackle 
the rapid growth of casual employment by insisting that casual jobs be 
converted into full-time employment.

"The winding back of casual employment, strict limits on overtime, the 
payment of all overtime and, most important of all, an Australia-wide 
campaign for an across-the-board shorter working week are priority areas 
for the trade union movement.

"The tremendous increases in labour productivity brought about by technical 
changes fully justify these claims. The usual employer claims that the 
improvement of the living standards of workers cannot be afforded have to 
be rejected. They are false economics.

"By seriously taking up these issues trade unions would also start to 
reverse the serious decline in trade union membership", concluded Mr Symon.

Stunning win at Stellar

In a major breakthrough, Telstra's Stellar call centre staff have been 
granted the first Award in the contract call centre industry.

It took a two-year campaign to win the Award, with Stellar employees and 
the CPSU fighting not only onsite, but taking the struggle to the NSW 
Trades and Labor Council, local and state politicians, holding public 
rallies to involve the media, and even registering a freedom of association 
complaint with the Office of the Employment Advocate.

The story of Stellar call centres is one of spectacular corporate bastardry 
(see Guardian 1053, 11/07/01).

Telstra set up the company in 1999 as a joint venture with US corporate 
giant Excell.

Telstra then outsourced many of its call centre functions and sacked 
thousands of its relatively well-paid unionised staff, only to re-employ 
them under the "new" company Stellar.

Under the non-union individual contracts (Australian Workplace Agreements) 
offered by Stellar, employees suffered some of the worst abuses found in 
the call centre industry.

Stellar exploited the inability of workers to bargain collectively, 
introducing 40-hour weeks, unachievable work targets, unwritten and 
changeable rules, wide-ranging powers for management to instantly dismiss 
employees, and wage rates that left full-time employees scraping the 
poverty line.

Management dragged known unionists and other staff who challenged the 
conditions before disciplinary hearings on trumped up charges. They also 
called in security guards or the police whenever a CPSU delegate attempted 
to visit the site.

Under the new Award, employees have won a 38-hour week, safety-net 
salaries, new penalty rates and redundancy provisions, and recognition of 
the CPSU and its delegates.

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