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Eric Abetz unmoved as his own department rejects austerity

Only 77 Department of Employment staff voted to accept a proposed enterprise bargaining agreement that was put to them yesterday, while 95% rejected the deal.

Despite such a clear rejection of the meagre offer, which would see employees lose significant benefits and their real wages go backwards, the government is keeping the brakes on public service remuneration.

Minister for Employment Eric Abetz, who is also responsible for the public service, was unmoved by the result in his own department, which is the first to have put a new enterprise bargaining agreement to an all-staff vote under the Coalition. In a statement to the media, he said politicians and senior government officials had “led by example” by accepting a pay freeze and urged public servants to accept the austerity imposed by the Abbott government, through an enterprise bargaining framework far stricter than the one it replaced:

“The government has made it clear that everyone on the Commonwealth payroll needs to show restraint at this time, particularly given that public servants have received wage rises of 42% over the past 10 years compared to [consumer price index] increases of 28%.”

The Community and Public Sector Union rejects this argument, on the basis that salaries of federal parliamentarians have risen by 69% over the same decade. Public servants have done slightly better than the private sector, but only by about 4%.

Some 1496 employees took part in yesterday’s ballot, or about 84% of the 1782 who were eligible to vote, according to an email to staff from the department’s group manager of people and communications, Vicki Rundle. Rundle told staff the result was “disappointing” and that she and her team would set about putting together a different proposal within the extremely narrow constraints of the new policy:

“The department will now take time to consider the outcome ahead of re-commencing bargaining meetings in the New Year. We will need to continue to work within the parameters of the government’s bargaining policy and our internal operating budget.

“We appreciate the importance of arriving at an enterprise agreement as soon as possible, given we can’t back-date salary increases. The preserved terms and conditions of the former [Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations] Enterprise Agreement 2012-2014 will continue to apply to employees until we finalise a new agreement.”

According to the CPSU, the agreement would have increased working hours and removed “workload protections” along with a range of other conditions such as time off in lieu for executive level staff, protection of 15.4% superannuation, a Christmas Eve closedown and a health-related allowance. It would also have removed the right of employees “to be consulted before decisions are made”, according to a union members’ bulletin, and made salary advancement more difficult, in line with the tough bargaining policy. Some 46 staff would have lost jobs.

In exchange, the small increases to pay on the table were 0.5% on commencement, a further 0.5% on January 1, 2016, and another 0.4% on January 30, 2017. The union maintains its members are more concerned with keeping the rights and conditions than with pay increases.

CPSU national secretary Nadine Flood said: “The Department now needs to talk to their Minister about considering changes to government’s bargaining policy that would allow them to offer a reasonable agreement”. But Abetz has made it clear that won’t be happening anytime soon:

“Government employees and unions should be under no illusions about the consequences of voting no to new EBAs under the government’s bargaining framework. The government has made it clear that voting no will not mean that departments will have any capacity to make more generous offers as the Framework will not be changing.”

Flood describes the rules that define productivity gains as “ludicrous” because they do not recognise “efficiencies in travel, accommodation, printing, reducing duplication and simplifying business processes” that she says the Department of Employment has recently achieved:

“[Abetz] defines productivity as new cuts to employee’s conditions that provide cashable savings. It is a bizarre, alternate IR universe.”

About 15,000 CPSU members are currently engaged in industrial action at the Department of Human Services, on a different front in the same war against the intransigent government and its insistence that public service remuneration must stand still. Their comrades at the Department of Veterans’ Affairs will soon join them.

While the action being taken at DHS is legally protected under the Fair Work Act, the department has made clear it will cut pay for the time taken by even the smallest protests, but particularly for call centre staff reading statements to customers over the phone.

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.