Telstra and NBN Co have committed themselves to boosting the level of training for workers on the NBN project following a series of highly publicised asbestos-related incidents.
The commitments were made at a high level meeting in Canberra on Monday 3 June convened by Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten.
That meeting was attended by representatives of Telstra, NBN Co, state and commonwealth regulators, asbestos groups and the union movement, including both the Communications Division (CWU) and Electrical Division (ETU) of the CEPU.
At the meeting, Minister Shorten announced the creation of a special group to deal with the asbestos-related public and worker safety issues arising from the NBN project.
The National Taskforce - Asbestos Safety in Telstra/NBN Infrastructure has been charged with:
Clearly appropriate training will be fundamental to any systematic approach to asbestos safety during the NBN roll-out. Equally important, however, given the nature of the construction programme, will be close on-the-ground monitoring of compliance with both training requirements and actual work practices.
The best asbestos safety course in the world will not prevent exposures if it does not actually reach the sub-contractors and sub-sub- contractors working around Australia - often in small numbers - on a decentralised and poorly coordinated roll-out.
And it will be just as ineffective if those sub-contractors are driven to cut corners, despite the risks, in order to avoid losses.
In the CWU's view, the recent asbestos incidents are symptomatic of broader operational and financial issues which must be addressed if public and worker safety is to be protected during the NBN roll-out.
The union will be pursuing this question on the Taskforce on which it is represented.
The CWU met with Telstra on Tuesday 4 June to discuss asbestos-related issues relevant both to our Telstra members and to contractors and sub-contractors working on the NBN project.
In addition to the question of public and worker safety associated with the presence of asbestos in Telstra pits and ducts, the union raised a number of issues that are of concern to members, i.e.
The union also asked about the implications of the Operations restructure for reporting lines/accountabilities within Telstra when it comes to asbestos-related issues.
It is clear that Telstra is still in the process of developing the internal processes that will enable it to deal with these problems. However it has to date:
The CWU has also suggested that there needs to be a simple, single contact point for Telstra employees concerned about asbestos exposure either in the past or present. This would be distinct from the hotline recently created do deal with public concerns.
The CWU expects to meet again with Telstra on these issues in the near future. Regular updates on progress will be provided in the E-bulletin.
Asbestos removal was one of a number of issues raised by the CWU on behalf of members when the union met with management in Victoria on 7 June.
Along with the incident involving asbestos in Penrith NSW, the dumping of materials possibly containing asbestos in Ballarat, Victoria has made the headlines in recent weeks. The principal contractor involved in the Telstra network remediation work in Victoria is Visionstream.
For some months the CWU has been making representations on behalf of its Visionstream members but until recently was not getting much response.
Prior to the recent meeting, the CWU had moved to take the company to the Fair Work Commission, notifying a dispute on 3 June.
Now the company has agreed to address a range of member concerns which along with asbestos removal procedures include underpayment for overtime work, access to amenities and equipment safety.
Meanwhile the national health and safety regulator is investigating the illegal dumping by Visionstream sub-contractors of some 80 truckloads of soil from works on Telstra pit and pipe infrastructure in Ballarat. The soil is currently being tested for the presence of asbestos.
The CWU congratulates its Visionstream members who have stood up for their own and the public's health and safety in relation to asbestos handling and have helped the CWU bring this issue to the notice of the federal government and other appropriate authorities.
The E-bulletin has reported previously on Project Rubiks, a review of current classification structures being undertaken by Telstra in Network Construction.
Following concerns being raised by state branches about the exercise, the CWU queried Telstra about the review and its relation to the work model review to which Telstra and the CWU are committed under the terms of the current Enterprise Agreement (EA).
The Divisional Office has now been advised by Telstra that it is not intended that Project Rubiks pre-empt discussions about moving to a single pay and classification structure in Telstra.
Telstra says the exercise is designed to ensure that there is consistency within the current banding structures in relation to the work that is actually being done by employees. The jobs people are performing will be assessed and then mapped to the current Job Descriptions to ensure that employees are being properly graded.
In recent months, state branches of the CWU have made representations to Telstra about members in NC being denied upgrades despite being regularly required to perform higher functions. It is to be hoped Project Rubriks acknowledges and addresses this problem.
Telstra has indicated it is happy to receive input from the union on such issues. Members interested in being part of this process should contact their state branch.
The future of Optus' satellite business remains unclear despite reports that it may be sold to a private equity company.
In March this year Optus engaged finance houses Credit Suisse and Morgan Stanley to review the business and make recommendations about options for its future. More recently the press has reported that expressions of interest have been sought from potential bidders for the business, with initial responses being sought by 14 June.
In response to concerns raised by members, the CWU has queried Optus about the progress of the review and the actual options being considered. Optus has told the union that no decisions have yet been made about the future of the satellite division.
This is in line with public statements by Optus CEO Kevin Russell who indicated last month that a range of options is being canvassed including a partial float or simply retaining the business as it is. Final recommendations on these options from the company's advisors are not expected until August.
If, however, the decision to sell is eventually taken the CWU will be engaging with Optus to ensure that members' entitlements are protected and employment options maximised.
In line with decisions announced earlier this year, Optus is proceeding with Project Cortez, the outsourcing of its mobile deployment functions.
The CWU understands there have been expressions of interest made by four bidders: Huawei, Visionstream, Kordia and Silcar with the first of these now having been eliminated from the tender.
Optus has indicated that the remaining three bidders all have somewhat different business models and that these could result in different outcomes for the approximately 40 people currently engaged on this work.
The CWU has indicated that it will support the option which provides greatest range of opportunities for its members. More information about the progress of Project Cortez is expected within the next 4-5 weeks.
Trading in shares in telecommunications contractor Service Stream has been suspended until 24 June, prompting speculation about the future of Syntheo, the company's joint venture with Lend Lease.
In a letter to the Australian Stock Exchange requesting the voluntary suspension Service Stream said that it needed the two week halt to "examine the impact of its [2013 profit] result on the performance of the Syntheo joint venture."
As part of Syntheo, Service Stream won NBN volume roll-out contracts for Western Australian, South Australia and the Northern Territory. Earlier this year NBN Co took over the NT work when it became apparent that Service Stream could not meet roll-out targets.
Service Stream also has contracts with NBN Co for greenfields roll-out work and with Telstra for NBN -related network remediation.
The exact scale of Service Stream's problems is not yet clear, but press reports have suggested that the company will seek to exit all the NBN volume roll-out work, effectively ending the joint venture operation.
If this was to occur it would obviously deal a major blow to the NBN roll-out schedule in WA and SA.
As yet Syntheo/Service Stream is the only NBN prime contractor to be evidently struggling to meet roll-out targets within the financial framework of its contract. But according to reports in industry newsletter Communications Day, at least one other company has suffered losses of over $50 million on its NBN contracts.
Meanwhile reports persist of sub-contractors being engaged at loss-making rates - and exposed to health and safety risks.
The NBN roll-out is a massive and complex project on which some delays and cost blow-outs could always have been expected. The question posed over the last six months, however, is whether there are more fundamental problems with the construction model, timetable and funding levels of the project.
The CWU believes these questions must be addressed in order to ensure that the pay and conditions of those working on the NBN roll-out meet the best industry standards.
Independent members of federal parliament have indicated they will not support changes to legislation designed to improve unions' access to members' workplaces.
Under Labor's Fair Work Act, unions have the right to enter workplaces where they have members or potential members provided they give employers notice of their intention to do so.
But they have no particular rights about where they can meet these employees. Needless to say this often means that employers choose inconvenient and/or out of the way locations for workplace meetings. Or they choose rooms where employees can be watched by management as they talk to the union.
Labor's proposals would ensure that union representatives have access to lunch rooms - a convenient and traditional place for workplace meetings - when they want to discuss issues with members on the job.
The proposal is one of a number of Labor amendments which are destined to fail after Independents Rob Oakshott and Tony Windsor said they would only vote for changes to current law that had the support of both Labor and the Coalition.
Not unsurprisingly there are not many of those. So changes to strengthen anti-bullying protections and to help protect penalty rates are also unlikely to go ahead.
It must be remembered that despite their support for the Gillard minority government, both Oakshott and Windsor are former National Party members. With an election approaching this is not a time when they are likely to change their spots.
Legislation introduced into the federal parliament by Labor will require employers to undertake market testing before bringing in new workers from outside Australia.
The move is designed to offer greater protections to both Australian and overseas workers by ensuring the 457 visa scheme is not used by employers to create a cheaper and more vulnerable local workforce.
Despite the fact that employers are by law required to employ 457 visa holders on the same terms and conditions as permanent Australian residents, evidence suggest that overseas workers are often being exploited by both employers and by immigration racketeers.
Recent reports in the Fairfax press revealed that some workers were paying immigration agents up to $40,000 dollars to come to Australia on the visas, leaving them heavily in debt and open to exploitation. Often they were being placed in the jobs well below their skill and expected earnings level.
Indebted to loan sharks and dependent on the employer for the continuation of their visa, such workers are unlikely to stand up for their rights - if they are aware of them.
The Labor legislation is aimed at putting some brakes on the current scheme by requiring all employers to demonstrate they had advertised for labour locally before sponsoring a worker from overseas.
It has been sharply opposed by business representatives but Labor Immigration Minister Brendan O'Connor says that companies that are already doing the right thing have nothing to fear.
The union movement has strongly supported the move.
"We need to ensure that 457 visas are only available where companies can show they have tried to recruit local workers, and that the Immigration Department properly monitors employers who use 457 visas," ACTU secretary Dave Oliver said.
"We also need to ensure that we are training local workers to fill future skills shortages, not simply relying on 457 visas."