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Telco e-Bulletin 2013 # 13

  1. Asbestos and the NBN: better sure than sorry.
  2. Telstra struggles with rising fault volumes.
  3. CWU disputes training of ISGM contractors.
  4. Changes to hours of work: get it in writing!
  5. Telstra super payments: still to be clarified.
  6. NBN sub-contractors demand better rates.
  7. Emergency services agreement: CWU industrial action gets green light.
  8. Employers oppose workplace bullying code.

1. Asbestos and the NBN: better sure than sorry

The CWU continues to be involved in steps to protect both communication workers and members of the public from exposure to asbestos in the course of the National Broadband Network (NBN) roll-out.

As has been reported in previous E-bulletins, the CWU is working with Telstra, NBN Co and government agencies through the Asbestos Taskforce to ensure that all those working on the NBN project receive appropriate training and supervision in the handling of asbestos.

We have also helped negotiate the funding by Telstra and NBN Co of a number of independent health and safety auditors of the roll-out.

But all this takes time. While these measures are being put in place small contractors working on the Telstra remediation project and, in some areas, on the NBN roll-out itself have found themselves without work.

The CWU fully understands the frustration of these workers who even before the asbestos issue blew up were often facing economic difficulties due to low contract prices and delays in payment. Indeed the structure of the NBN workforce ensures that it is these workers that bear the greatest part of the risk of any delays and cost blow-outs that occur.

That is why the CWU has opposed this employment model since the beginning.

But the problem cannot be solved now at the expense of the health and safety of these same workers. Both the federal government and the union movement have rightly supported appropriate measures being put in place to address the asbestos problem systematically and thoroughly before work on the Telstra remediation programme resumes.

The alternative - a premature return to work - might help NBN Co and the government meet their roll-out targets but only at the cost of long-term health risks to communication workers.

The CWU does not and will not support such a course of action.

2. Telstra struggles with rising fault volumes

A sharp rise in network fault volumes has Telstra scrambling for resources after years of workforce "downsizing".

The CWU understands that over the last 6 months fault volumes have been running at around three times their usual level.

A number of recent initiatives by Telstra have highlighted the problem:

  • Northern Region has launched a "Road to Recovery Challenge" which involves employees working 26 out of 28 days between now and mid-August in an attempt to clear the fault backlog. In return they will get additional days off at Xmas.
  • Similar incentive based schemes are being offered to employees in northern Victoria. Teams that have 75% of employees working additional hours will be eligible for tickets in a draw to attend a major sporting event!
  • Extra resources are being sought from Telstra contractor ISGM to address service problems.

Telstra has also lodged a number of Mass Service Disruption Notices for parts of Victoria and NSW, citing adverse weather conditions as a reason for not being able to meet legislated fault restoration timeframes.

But the basic problem is lack of resources, not the weather!

It is not clear how much the current high volumes of work reflect increasing fault rates as opposed to a growing fault back log. But either way the answer lies in employing more staff rather than sweating existing employees, let alone creating more redundancies.

3. CWU disputes training of Telstra contractors

The CWU is in dispute with Telstra over its attempts to get its employees to train contractors in their work.

Telstra has been requiring field-based Communication Technicians (CTs) to train ISGM sub-contractors in network installation and maintenance work. ISGM is now the sole contractor to Telstra in this area. Last it expanded its operations by taking on Service Delivery's outsourced design and construction work.

In a related development, members report they are being required to train Tech to Home contractors to do customer premises work.

The CWU's views on contracting out are well known to members and other E-bulletin readers. The union considers that it is self-defeating in the long run as company capabilities, control and hence work quality is sacrificed for short-term cost reductions.

And for telecommunications workers, of course, it means that financial and safety risks are shifted off companies like Telstra - and ISGM -and onto them. Meanwhile secure permanent jobs disappear.

But it is adding insult to injury to make people threatened with redundancy train those being lined up to replace them.

It is of particular concern that CTs may be being required to perform what is essentially a supervisory role without any prior knowledge of whether the contractors have been properly inducted into Telstra worksites, have had security checks and have the required level of health and safety awareness.

The CWU has advised Telstra that it regards this situation as a breach of the Enterprise Agreement as CTs are clearly being required to perform functions and accept responsibilities that lie outside their job descriptions. We have also pointed to the lack of consultation by Telstra over this matter.

The issue will now be dealt with under the dispute resolution procedures of the Enterprise Agreement and, if necessary, be taken to the Fair Work Commission.

In the meantime, any members being asked to do this work should contact their state branch immediately for advice.

4. Changes to hours of work: get it in writing!

Telstra is looking for people willing to put in extra hours to help it get its fault volumes under control.

There appears to be a number of variants to the schemes on offer, but most involve employees accepting changes to their usual work patterns or rosters in return for additional days off later in the year.

The current Enterprise Agreement (EA) allows Telstra to introduce changes to normal working arrangements on either a group or individual basis - but only with your consent.

A group of employees can agree to such changes by majority vote. The relevant union has to be informed of the agreement and either side can terminate if they give 14 days' notice.

Individuals can negotiate such agreements on a one-to-one basis with management (or with union assistance) but they must leave you better off than you would have been before.

In both cases the agreement must be in writing and spell out clearly what the proposed arrangements are.

The CWU recognises that such intensive work patterns may sometimes suit some employees, though we would urge members to consider the implications of these proposals for work/life balance.

It is important however that you have the protections offered by the EA when entering into such arrangements. Members are urged to discuss any proposals with their state branch.

5. Telstra super payments still to be clarified

E-bulletin #12 reported on the outcome of discussions with Telstra over the payment of the additional 0.25% superannuation contribution to employees on the CSS scheme.

Members had raised concerns about this issue after Telstra indicated that it intended - for accounting purposes - to "deduct" the payment from the 3% productivity component of the total employer superannuation payment and add it to the nominal 9% employer contribution.

This would make no difference to the actual total employer payment to superannuation while at the same time this would automatically raise their Fixed Remuneration level by 0.25%. On the basis of the discussions with Telstra during the EA negotiations, the CWU understood that these employees would also receive a further 0.25% increase outside super, given that their total superannuation contributions were already above 9%.

The CWU has now been shown a payslip by a member on the CSS scheme which suggests this extra 0.25% is not in fact being paid. We have raised the issue with Telstra and are due to meet with them over it next week.

In the meantime any other members in the same situation are asked to report the matter to their state branch.

6. NBN sub-contractors demand better rates

Disputes continue between NBN Co's prime contractors and those they are engaging for the "volume" roll-out, most of whom are sub-contractors (and sub-contractors of sub-contractors) rather than direct employees.

The last two weeks have seen a stop-work by two companies sub-contracting to Transfield in Ballarat after a dispute over work quality and contract payments.

The CWU understands that the payments were being withheld until sub-standard work was remediated.

And in Tasmania Visionstream sub-contractors are up in arms over the company's proposal to pay them on a piece work basis rather than by daily rates.

The move would seem to reflect an attempt by Visionstream to claw back margin on a contract which industry observers suggest does not reflect the real-world costs of NBN construction works.

The CWU understands that Visionstream signed up for NBN roll-out work on the basis of a payment of $1200 per home passed - the figure budgeted for in NBN Co's 2012-2015 corporate plan. This is despite the fact that, according to NBN Co's own figures, the cost per premises for the first three "pre-release" sites in Tasmania was $5,000 per home passed and for the Stage 2 Tasmanian build $4,000.

The NBN roll-out strategy is based on the assumption of falling costs as volumes rise and expertise grows. But to assume that costs will fall by some 60-75% from their initial levels is optimistic indeed.

So it is hardly surprising if the roll-out is currently the site of a growing conflict between prime contractors and their sub-contractors over payments - or if sub-contractors cut corners in an attempt to avoid losses.

These circumstances are contrary to the interests of NBN workers. And they are not in the interests of the community which rightly expects access to a high quality, reliable network in exchange for the very considerable public funds being spent on the project.

7. Emergency services agreement: CWU industrial action gets green light

The CWU has successfully defended its members' right to continue protected industrial action in pursuit of an agreement with ESTA, the Victorian emergency services agency.

Last week the Fair Work Commission dismissed an application by ESTA to suspend the industrial action for three months.

The CWU's ESTA members, who handle Triple Zero calls, have been fighting for a new Enterprise Agreement since the nominal expiry of the last agreement in June last year. But they have come up hard against the Liberal/National state government policy of limiting all government employees' wage rises to 2.5%.

As a result ESTA workers have imposed a number of work bans designed to put pressure on the agency (and the government) without compromising public safety. These include bans on participating in performance reviews, audits and some training activities.

The Fair Work Commission rejected ESTA's claim that these bans were endangering the health and safety of people in Victoria although the CWU and other unions involved did also give undertakings in relation to certain work functions.

The CWU's ESTA members are among many other Victorian workers, including nurses, teachers and ambulance service workers, who have been forced into protracted industrial action by the Victorian Liberal government's intransigent attitude to wage increases.

It is time this dispute was resolved through a pay rise which reflects the value of the services these workers provide to the community.

8. Employers oppose workplace bullying code

Employer groups are opposing the implementation of a Code of Practice to address the problem of bullying in the workplace.

According to the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI) the step would impose an unacceptable "regulatory burden" on business.

But unions say that workplace bullying is rife and that in fact the proposed Code of Practice needs to be strengthened through additional regulations.

"Workplace bullying damages lives, and it should be treated in the same way as other workplace hazards," ACTU President Ged Kearney said.

"Employers are required by law to provide a safe workplace, and this should include acting to prevent bullying.

"A strong workplace culture is the best way to stop bullying, but this can only occur if employers' responsibilities are clearly outlined in regulation."

"It is not good enough to treat bullying as isolated incidents or 'personality clashes, employers must recognise that bullying is often a product of the culture they create in the workplace."

ACCI is also opposing the introduction of anti-bullying measures recently passed in the federal parliament. As reported in E-bulletin #11, Labor amendments to the Fair Work Act mean that an employee can now take a bullying matter to the Fair Work Commission.

ACCI wants a two year delay before the changes take effect.

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