Hundreds of Australian broadband technicians stop working

Hundreds of Australian broadband technicians have quit their jobs in recent days to protest low wages, ‘pyramid’ contracts and an impractical job planning platform.

The Communications Electricity and Plumbing Union (CEPU) has staged a series of protests in an attempt to deflect workers’ anger behind corporate unions and the Labor Party ahead of the upcoming federal election. The aim is to prevent a wider movement of workers in the logistics and telecommunications sectors in a context of intensified pro-company restructuring, and to bring entrepreneurs back behind negotiations between unions and companies.

NBN workers protest in Adelaide, South Australia (Source: CEPU Facebook)

The shutdowns began on May 3, when technicians from New South Wales demonstrated outside the North Sydney headquarters of NBN Co, the public company responsible for Australia’s National Broadband Network, followed later in the week by protests in front of a communication conference in Sydney attended by. Officers of NBN Co.

Workers from Melbourne marched through the Victorian capital on May 6 to protest outside the headquarters of NBN Co and a major NBN Co contractor, BSA. Adelaide technicians began demonstrating on Tuesday, ahead of Wednesday’s so-called “national day of action” involving workers in Brisbane as well as the three other capitals.

In a cynical move deliberately designed to minimize its impact, the “national day of action” was announced on the union’s Facebook page just 12 hours before the protests began. Most of the previous events were only made public after they had been in progress.

At the May 5 rally in Sydney, CEPU National Secretary Shane Murphy stood alongside Labor MP Michelle Rowland as she denounced the “immorality” of “highly paid NBN Co. executives” Rowland said, “Shane is absolutely right. It requires parliamentary scrutiny. “

Rowland did not mention that the company’s executive pay in 2020 was only 12% higher in real terms than when the NBN rollout began under the Gillard Labor government in 2011.

During fiscal year 2018-19, a combined amount of $ 3.28 million was remitted to the CEO and the Executive Committee as part of the Company’s STI bonus program. Between July and December of last year, company executives received bonuses totaling $ 4.33 million.

The CEPU’s call for a parliamentary inquiry and its promotion of illusions within the Labor Party are attempts to distract workers. The corporatization and privatization of public services, including telecommunications, began under the Hawke-Keating Labor government in the 1990s and were facilitated at every turn by the unions.

Following the first demonstrations, Murphy announced on May 6 that the technicians could “celebrate their first victory”. The so-called “victory” was a loose, non-binding agreement with only one of NBN Co’s delivery partners, Lendlease. He agreed to “facilitate a path” to the direct engagement of subcontractors, thus eliminating the intermediary subcontractor.

Murphy announced that the union had entered into talks with delivery partners NBN Co, BSA and Visionstream, over their pyramid contractual arrangements, but was unable to secure a meeting with a fourth delivery partner, Service Stream. .

NBN Co contracts work with delivery partners, who outsource this work to prime contractors, who in turn either re-outsource the work or hire low-paid and under-skilled workers. Techs say they are now forced to sign new contracts at lower rates of pay as major contractors take a 30-40% cut.

By making deals with NBN Co’s delivery partners, CEPU is endorsing the company’s use of exploited “independent” subcontractors and blocking a real struggle to put workers’ interests ahead of corporate profits.

In fact, the very existence of the pyramid contract model is a direct result of the union’s role in enforcing the elimination of permanent jobs in industry over the decades.

Since the late 1990s, CEPU has actively worked with Telstra management as the former state-owned telecommunications giant cut tens of thousands of permanent jobs in favor of the precarious workforce occasional and contractual. Workers who kept their jobs were repeatedly forced to accept “pay increases” below the inflation level in company agreements negotiated by the union.

NBN workers told the Nine Network “A Current Affair” that they were paid as little as $ 50 to $ 80 for jobs that could take up to four hours. Additionally, technicians are responsible for all of their own commercial costs, including tools, test equipment, insurance, and continuing education.

Workers are also frustrated with NBN Co’s segregation of duties platform, which they have to interact with through an app. According to technicians, it can take up to three hours to book a job, forcing them to work longer hours and missing scheduled appointments, generating multiple complaints from customers.

While recent changes to the work planning platform have made the plight of technicians worse, NBN Co’s corporate structure and tiered contract model has been in place since its inception under Kevin’s Labor governments. Rudd and Julia Gillard.

Construction of the state-funded $ 57 billion NBN began in 2011. Its goal was to provide high-speed internet connections to households and businesses across Australia by replacing the aging copper cable network with high-speed optical fiber.

With the project already overdue, in 2013 Abbott’s newly elected Liberal-National government abandoned the original plan and opted for a lower speed connection that used the existing inferior copper cable network to speed up construction. of the network.

In December last year, Communications Minister Paul Fletcher prematurely declared the deployment of the national broadband network to be complete and fully operational. About 35,000 Australian homes are still not connected to the NBN and at least an additional $ 3.5 billion is needed to build fiber to parts of the network still on the old copper connections.

The official declaration by the Minister of Communications of the completion of the NBN was important to overcome a legal obstacle to the eventual privatization of the network.

NBN Co has already started preparations to make the business attractive to any potential buyer. Last July, CEO Stephen Rue said the company would reduce the size of its direct workforce from around 6,200 employees to around 5,400 by the end of 2020. The company’s target will increase. from building the network to generating income through marketing and retail.

The company expects to generate $ 4.5 billion in revenue by the end of fiscal year 2020-21. Average revenue per customer is $ 45 per year, but NBN Co aims to increase it to $ 49 by the end of fiscal year 2022–23.

The CEPU’s record shows that it will not lead a real fight against the privatization of NBN Co or for the fair wages and conditions of workers essential to its operation.

These tasks require a break with the unions and the formation of independent grassroots committees in all sections of the industry to fight for socialist policies, according to which critical public services, as well as banks and other large corporations, would be brought under. public control. ownership and democratic control of workers.

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