Text size: A A A

Centrelink to outsource another 1500 call centre staff

The Turnbull government is outsourcing an extra 1500 staff to answer phones for Centrelink, and still blames Labor for the agency’s poor call centre performance after nearly five years in power. 

Minister for Human Services Michael Keenan said the latest external workforce boost for his department would bring the total number of external staff answering calls up to 2750.

“These [1500] staff are on top of 1,000 staff announced in April to assist the Department to deal with surges in demand and to ensure our service standards continue to meet community expectations, and the 250 additional call centre operators who were engaged late last year through a pilot program with Serco,” Keenan explained in a statement.

The minister presents the 2750 privately owned headsets plugged into Centrelink’s phone lines as a “stark contrast” to a cut of over 4800 staff in the Human Services workforce that occurred under the previous Labor government during 2011, 2012 and 2013.

The following Abbott government did not restore the Human Services workforce to its former levels after that, however, and the Turnbull government has reduced it further in more recent years.

The Australian Public Service Commission’s workforce statistics show DHS maintained a total headcount above 35,000 employees from mid-2013 until December 2016, but in the following year saw a significant drop, mainly in non-ongoing staff.

Budget papers report a different type of figures, the total “average staffing level” which for DHS  stood at 32,048 for the 2012-13 financial year, compared to 28,587 for 2016-17 and a projected figure of 27,307 as the expected outcome for the current financial year.

The Community and Public Sector Union has attacked the Turnbull government since last year for cutting “more than 5000 permanent jobs” from DHS but it is not clear where this figure is drawn from.

Update: a CPSU spokesperson explained the union’s calculations — but agreed that their tally of cuts is more accurately assigned to the Abbott and Turnbull governments.

The union says there were 5,184 less permanent roles at DHS at the end of 2017 compared to June 2013, on the basis that its ASL figure dropped by 3,418 in that period while the number of irregular, intermittent or non-ongoing roles increased from zero to 1,766. The spokesperson said they could arguably have also added just over 1000 more to the figure by including the growth of roles attached to fixed term, non-ongoing contracts.

Keenan also blames “poor management” in the period before the Abbott government was elected for “call wait times exploding from about 90 seconds under the Howard Government to more than 12.5 minutes” although it bears mention that the Coalition will have been in power for five years this September.

Even if you count Julia Gillard’s minority coalition with cross-benchers as part of the last Labor period of government, the Abbott and Turnbull teams have only had about one year less to turn things around.

“The Turnbull Government has been working to clean up Labor’s mess ever since,” Keenan claims, but in that time the figures have only worsened with the latest average waiting time — if you can trust the way it is calulated — reported as over 15 minutes.

The minister said today the recent Serco pilot had demonstrated that outsourcing was an efficient, effective and flexible way for the agency to serve citizens. “Those staff have already answered more than 2 million calls and have helped reduce busy signals on Centrelink phone lines by almost 20 per cent,” he claimed.

When that deal was announced late last year, the CPSU did not hold back in its assessment of the firm, which also runs correctional facilities and detention centres.

“Serco is a tax-avoiding multinational parasite, plain and simple, that profits from downgrading public services and underpaying the people who provide them,” said national secretary Nadine Flood. “Everything they touch sees services suffer.”

The extra 1000 customer service staff announced earlier this year come through four companies: Serco, through its Victorian call centres, as well as Stellar Asia PacificConcentrix Services and DataCom Connect, whose staff will be located in either Perth, Brisbane and Adelaide.

“Centrelink answers about 1 million calls a week and getting through on the phone can sometimes be difficult, especially at periods of high demand,” said Keenan.

Outsourcing the staff is “straight out of the conservative politics playbook” in Nadine Flood’s view. “The Turnbull Government has cut and cut and cut at Centrelink, and is now trying to use the appalling service standards it has caused as justification for privatising a critical public service,” she said last year.

But Keenan also faintly praised the former Labor government for introducing “the use of service delivery partners” at the Australian Taxation Office in 2008, where he said it had proven “highly effective”.

“We are committed to delivering the best possible services to the Australian people, and today’s announcement will ensure more Australians have access to the services they need, where and when they need them.”

Meanwhile, the CPSU has criticised the use of labour-hire in the National Disability Insurance Agency in a new statement today, and welcomed a new election promise from the Shadow Minister for Human Services, Linda Burney, to lift the NDIA staffing cap if Labor wins office.

The Turnbull Government imposed an Average Staffing Levels cap on the NDIA, and on all Commonwealth agencies, setting an arbitrary limit on the number of staff who can be directly employed by the agency.

Flood said CPSU members in the NDIA were “happy and relieved” at the news.

“The arbitrary staffing cap imposed on the NDIA by the Turnbull Government benefits no-one, except the corporations who profit because the agency is blocked from directly hiring the staff it needs to provide disability services,” she said.

“NDIA funding is there for clients and the workers serving them, not to line the pockets of profit-hungry corporations.”

“Currently a large proportion of people working to deliver the NDIA aren’t employed by the agency but through dodgy and unfair labour hire contracts and other arrangements that mean they are paid less, have no job security and work under inferior employment conditions.

“For example multinational corporation Serco profits from running the NDIA call centre while dudding the people doing the actual work. These people need and deserve decent, permanent jobs.”

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.