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  Issue No 107 Official Organ of LaborNet 17 August 2001  

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Unions

The Black Hole


Jim Marr goes inside Stellar to discover the human cost of a management philosophy that says: you are on your own.

 
 

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Holidaying Wollongong student Neville Collis was so elated at news he had scored a fulltime job that he blew his cash on a slap-up meal at a Brisbane restaurant.

Twelve months later, the reality of life with call centre operator Stellar has dampened that enthusiasm.

"When I got the phone call I was thrilled," he recalled, "I had been studying at TAFE for nearly four years and had debts to pay off and, from the interview, the job sounded great.

"Now ... I still like the job and the people I work with, but the company I can't stand."

From the day, in June 2000, that Stellar offered successful applicants "non-negotiable" AWAs it was clear their operation would be anti-union.

CPSU Communications Union organiser, Naomi Arrowsmith, first made it inside the door in June. Prior to that, three separate letters about grievances raised by members had failed to elicit a reply.

Inside, in Stellar's own words, MST (mean service time) "drives" working life.

MST refers to the average time an "agent" spends answering public enquires - in this case for Telstra directory or Yellow Pages services.

When Stellar started in Wollongong staff were given a target MST of 25 seconds, then 20. At the time of writing it had fallen to 18.3 seconds..

Workers who fail to meet those targets are subject to disciplinary procedures. When one asked if it was true those who spoke for longer would be sacked, management posted this reply on a noticeboard - "...there is no simple yes or no response to this question...".

But the real sting in the MST tail is its capacity to reduce work, in the year 2001, to something Charles Dickens might have recognised.

At computer screens, every action is timed to the 10th, sometimes the 100th, of a second. Workers are allowed nine minutes of "health breaks" - toilet breaks to you or me - per day. Prior to union intervention they had to raise their hands and get supervisor approval.

Agents have fielded calls from people contemplating suicide and looking for counselling. One was "disciplined" for spending 20 minutes with a desperate caller. Traumatised, she took time off work and paid for her own counselling. Stellar's line - if you can't attract a supervisor - hang up.

Before the recent introduction of computerised answering, agents recited set lines - "Telstra," they would claim somewhat disingenuously, "this is Mary/Matthew/Marjorie, what name please?"

The pressure of MST, however, caused many to ditch given names and the likes of Dee, Tas, Fox, Bee and Da, were born.

"I was Dee," Claire Daniels admitted, "you can't get much shorter than that. When I was doing it, my service times fell by nearly two seconds."

Soon after opening in Burelli St, Wollongong, workers started joining the CPSU. A meeting at the nearby Oxford Hotel elected Collis, Daniels, Paul Stolk and Claire Cuthbertson as workplace delegates.

The response was predictable. Stolk, formerly a security supervisor, has been demoted and disciplined - "I was on a seconded manager programme until the shit hit the fan," he explained.

Collis was disciplined over his MST, then suspended for a week after being accused of "sledging the company" during a phone call. He wound up in Wollongong Hospital with severe migraines and high blood pressure after a showdown at which he was forbidden union representation.

On April 28 the 23-year-old was on the mat again charged, in the words of the company handbook, with "soliciting for an outside organisation".

"I don't deny it," Collis said. "I was handing out flyers about a union picnic but I only did it in the walkway to people going to and from the lunchroom."

Neither Collis nor his colleagues are disheartened by a slow response to union overtures.

"Some people think they have got us on AWAs so there is not much the union can do," Collis explained, "with others it is just fear. They feel that if they join they are going to be victimised and, to be honest, I don't blame them.

"But it doesn't stop them being good people. On the nightshift we look after one another. Most people support what we are doing and let us know what is happening."

Collis, the son of a plant manager and a nurse, was raised in Dapto believing that ideals like democracy and a fair-go stretched into the workplace.

He traces most difficulties at Stellar back to AWAs and insists that view is shared by the majority of his workmates.

"We hate them, pretty much all of us. They take away our rights and leave us with nothing," he said.

Daniels backs him up: "Under this set-up I am earning $2 an hour less than I was getting as a shoppie five years ago.

"When we started we were told AWAs were not negotiable. The implication was, this is your agreement - you sign it, or you don't and see you later."

Howard's Way

They know a rort when they see one in the Labor Party and that's why Stellar's employment practises will feature in this year's federal election campaign.

ALP strategists head-hunted CPSU Communications Union members to tell their stories in advertising that will screen in the lead-up to polling day.

Labor will concentrate its fire on AWAs (Australian Workplace Agreements) but the whole Stellar set-up is testament to the John Howard/Peter Reith/Tony Abbott strategy of building an underclass, whilst cutting official jobless figures.

Key issues raised by Stellar's policies include ...

· Australian Workplace Agreements

- Stellar used "non-negotiable" AWAs to undercut established rates paid to people answering directory services and yellow pages enquiries

- Stellar workers got $10,000 a year less, on the core rate, than Telstra employees doing the same work; they received inferior penalty rates and were denied the 17% annual holiday loading. All-up, Wollongong fulltimers received about $15,000 a year less than those employed by Telstra.

- Unions are barred from the premises.

- In spite of the Workplace Relations Act, Stellar workers have been denied advocates of their choice, being permitted only "a fellow worker" as a witness during disciplinary procedures.

· Contracting Out

- Telstra has contracted out its directory services to a subsidiary to defeat entitlements owed to workers

- The company sacked thousands of its own staff, handing over call centres so Stellar could pay their replacements a base rate of $12.01 an hour

· Transmission of Business

- A vexed area of law supposed to prevent companies contracting out for the purpose of defeating the terms of industrial instruments

- In late 1999, the CPSU won a Federal Court decision ordering Stellar to apply Telstra wages and conditions to its employees, effectively over-ruling their AWAs

- Stellar refused and its appeal was upheld by the full bench of the High Court. It's ruling, essentially that call centres were not Telstra's "core business", makes workers in most industries vulnerable.

- The union is considering further action but is hamstrung by already substantial legal costs, not an issue to Stellar, backed by the billion dollar resources of parent company Telstra.

· Privatisation

- Underpinning the whole issue is the Howard Government's determination to privatise Telstra

- Already 49% privately owned, Australia's most profitable company has changed its focus from community service to shareholder enrichment.

- Workers are being sacked in their thousands and rates for jobs, such as those performed by Stellar, are being slashed to curry favour with the sharemarket.

Fact File

· Stellar was established in May, 1998.

· It is a joint venture between Telstra and giant US call centre operator Excell Global Services

· For Telstra, it operates call centres at Robina (QLD), Wollongong (NSW), Adelaide (SA) and Joondulup (WA) to handle phone cancellations, directory services, pay phone, yellow pages and billing enquiries.

· The company signs contracts requiring it to have "the look and feel" of a Telstra operation.

· It refuses to apply Telstra wages and conditions to employees.

· Since early 1999 all staff have been employed on AWAs.

· NOTE: Since this article was completed, Stellar, under considerable union pressure, has increase wage rates by four percent.

These articles first appeared in The Works, national magazine of the CPSU.


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*    Visit the CPSU

*   View entire issue - print all of the articles!

*   Issue 107 contents

In this issue
Features
*  Interview: What's The Deal?
Labor's IR spokesman Arch Bevis explains how a Beazley Government will rebuild our broken system.
*
*  E-Change: 2.3 The State of the Union
White hope or white elephant? The future of trade unions is by no means guaranteed in the networked society.
*
*  Industrial: Into the 21st Century
ACTU President Sharan Burrow looks at the landmark deal delivering workers 12 months paid maternity leave.
*
*  Unions: The Black Hole
Jim Marr goes inside Stellar to discover the human cost of a management philosophy that says: you are on your own.
*
*  History: The Age of Dissent
The Sydney Branch of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History has organised a Conference on Social Protest Movements and the Labour Movement, 1965-1975.
*
*  Media: ABC and the Knowledge Nation
Tony Moore looks at how the national broadcaster's fortunes are closely linked to the Knowledge Nation Agenda
*
*  International: Brazil´s C.U.T. - When Big Is Beautiful
The CFMEU´s Phil Davey drops in on Brazil´s equivalent to the ACTU, the Central Unica Dos Trabalhadores (CUT).
*
*  Satire: Bracks Disputes Cabramatta tag
Victorian Premier Steve Bracks has called for a national council to decide on a location for Australia's drug capital.
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*  Review: Globalisation Is Globalisation
In an extract from his book, Christopher Shiel argues that the official Australian perspective on globalisation is strikingly narrow.
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»  Unrest in Hospitals Over Contracting Out
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»  Paid Baby Leave Sparks New Family Push
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»  Nurses Pay Action Hots Up
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»  Costello's Couriers March to Canberra
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»  'Man Who Worked Too Hard' Wins Back Job
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»  Soldiers Suffer Dodgy Bog
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»  Union Backs Call For Safety Review
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»  Cleaner Wins Annual Leave Rights Dispute
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»  Tip Top's Not the One
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»  Flying High: Airport Guards Scoop Cash
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»  Union Presence At Big Indian Community Fair
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»  Activists Notenbook
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Columns
»  The Soapbox
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»  Sport
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»  Trades Hall
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»  Tool Shed
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Letters to the editor
»  The Shark That Cried Woolf
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»  The Plight of Casual Teachers
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»  Belly's Back!
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