Robodebt a symptom of overreliance on temporary workforces, senate committee hears

By Melissa Coade

July 20, 2021

CPSU points the finger at Services Australia’s insecure workforce for contributing to the government’s unlawful robodebt scheme.
CPSU points the finger at Services Australia’s insecure workforce arrangements for contributing to the government’s unlawful robodebt scheme. (Image: Adobe/Rafael Ben-Ari)

The Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) has pointed the finger at Services Australia’s insecure workforce arrangements for contributing to the government’s unlawful robodebt scheme.

On Tuesday CPSU national president Alistair Waters told a senate inquiry into the current capability of the APS that decisions made by Services Australia to silence concerns raised by public servants about the bungled robodebt scheme, and replace them with labor hire staff to do the work, saw the automated debt-collecting program executed in spite of warnings from experienced bureaucrats. 

“Of the almost 1,600 labour hire workers engaged in Services Australia at the end of April, around 800 work in the payments and integrity group, raising debts,” Waters told the senate committee. 

“This labour hire workforce was introduced when robodebt was being implemented.

“Permanent staff who then worked in the robodebt area objected to the lawfulness of the program and were moved to other duties. An insecure workforce of about 800 labour hire employees were then brought in by Services Australia to implement robodebt.” 

In June this year the Federal Court approved a $1.8 billion settlement for hundreds of thousands of Centrelink recipients who were wrongfully issued with debt notices. Justice Bernard Murphy outlined in a scathing decision against the Commonwealth that it ‘should have been obvious’ to public servants and ministers running the scheme that the process for determining debts was flawed. At best the scheme was a ‘stuff up’, he said. 

“The proceeding has exposed a shameful chapter in the administration of the commonwealth social security system and a massive failure of public administration,” Murphy’s judgment read.

APS blended workforce model problematic, union says

The CPSU argues workforce arrangements where departments and agencies reduce the number of permanent staff and increase their reliance on labour-hire workforces, known as a ‘blended workforce model’, ostensibly leads to poorer policy and service delivery outcomes for the Australian community. The union told the committee that it wants permanently staffed agencies that have the resources, training and ICT infrastructure to provide essential services. 

In the department of veterans affairs (DVA), for example, the committee heard there had been an ‘explosion’ of labour hire contracts or workers, in step with a reduction in ongoing staff numbers — 379 permanent positions have been dropped from the department since 2013. 

CPSU national secretary Melissa Donnelly said that with approximately 323,000 Australian veteran clients for the department to assist, capacity to deal with claims processing had seriously declined. There are approximately 700,000 veterans in the community.

Privatisation in the form of labour hire and outsourcing has reduced [DVA’s] ability to administer services that veterans rely on and meet its basic legislative requirements.

“It extends beyond basic functions like claims processing to complex case management, to outsourcing of the Medical Advisor cohort to BUPA and attempts to fully privatise Open Arms,” Donnelly said.

Open Arms is a mental health and wellbeing support provider for current and ex-serving ADF personnel and their families.

Donnelly also told the committee that it should come as no surprise that the workload for staff at DVA was ever-increasing.

“DVA reports that Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act (MRCA) liability claims have more than trebled in the past three reporting years and permanent impairment claims has doubled over the same time.

“Staff struggle to manage these increasing caseloads. Most staff are expected to manage at least 130 claims, the average is 130 to 160 – well above safe caseload levels, assessed by Work Health & Safety representatives as being between 70 and 80 claims,” she said.

On the issue of service quality, Waters said high staff turnover at Services Australia had led to growing problems because employees simply did not have the experience or training to ensure good, process driven service delivery.

“It [has] led to multiple problems, including the creation of reverse workflows, double handling, a dramatic rise in errors, increasing complaints, unnecessary appeals, declining customer satisfaction, trust and reputational damage to the team that result from that lack of secure jobs.

“Many of these casuals and the various privatised work groups want more secure employment. Job security would allow them to build their expertise and experience and ensure there is proper training by the agency to get the vital and complex work of the agency done,” Waters said. 

The union noted a pledge in the federal budget to increase DVA’s average staffing levels saw half of new hires actually converted from its existing labour hire workforce to non-ongoing fixed term contracts. 

That transition is not enough, more permanent staff are needed,” Donnelly said. 

Fairness equation

According to the CPSU, blended workforce models also see individual employees lose out. The finance and public administration references committee heard about the different protections available to contractors or fixed-term employees in the APS working for Services Australia and the DVA.

On top of the job insecurity experienced by hire labour staff compared with permanent APS employees, they also receive different entitlements to training and professional development, and access to different employee assistance programs (EAP).

DVA’s people services branch assistant secretary Roger Winzenberg told the committee that if there was an issue with a staff member, who was not an APS, accessing their version of EAP, the department would step in to assist. 

“Traditionally across the commonwealth, APS agencies have had EAP programmes for their APS staff and labour hire companies have provided EAP programmes for their labour hire staff,” Winzenberg said. 

When asked by the committee deputy chair Tim Ayres if it was acceptable that different EAP services were being offered to a group of staff who encountered the same particular workplace issues, Winzenberg noted that so far as he was aware this was not a problem.

“Most of the major labour companies, one of their offerings for their people are EAP resources and they take that seriously as well. 

“If there is a problem, we’re always happy to talk to the labour hire company or do what we can to ensure that the labour hire person gets the help they need,” he said.


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