|Issue No 47||24 March 2000|
Andrew Hillard first blew the whistle on Mal Colston's expenses rorts; now he's taking on Telstra over its tactics to drive down wages and conditions.
How did you come to be working as a manager in a Telstra call centre?
In early 1997 I was working for Mal Colston. I blew the whistle on him in what became known as the Colston Affair; there was a huge amount of publicity and it got to the point where it was difficult for me to work in politics.
I had a friend who was working as a casual in a Telstra operator assisted services centre in Southport on the Gold Coast. I applied as a position of operator with them and was accepted. I was working from 11.30pm to 7am which gave me an income while I could still participate in the federal police inquiries into the Colston allegations.
As an outsider what was your impression of work in a call centre?
It's very high pressured, particularly in directory assistance; although having workers in residential sales and service for Stellar, the same pressure applied. It's the constancy of calls, the harassed and troubled nature of people on the phone, people are very impatient, they are very abusive of operators. In an eight hour shift you can cop a lot and you are under huge working pressure. they're called AHTs - average handling times for each call. So Telstra itself places a huge emphasis on keeping the calls as short as possible for the obvious reason that the more calls they take per operator, the fewer operators they have to put on a particular shift. It's a social environment - and that's what appeals to a lot of people when they first go into the call centre industry. But as you settle into it, the pressure begins to build on you.
How did you make the transition into management
In September of 1998 Stellar put out a press release saying they were opening a Telstra call centre on the Gold Coast - I applied for that as an agent and was accepted. That opened mid-December. In February 1999 they asked people to apply for management positions. I was a service manager there for six months and then promoted down to their new centre in Sydney as a human resources manager.
When did you start suspecting things were rotten in the Stellar operations?
Probably within three months of opening. We were given all the company rhetoric about how this was a ground-breaking new venture for Telstra, an exciting opportunity how well we would be treated, how it would run under the American philosophy of 'open book management' - meaning that management would be very disclosive to the staff of all the things that happened at a management level, the philosophy of the company would be clearly shown to the staff and the whole thing would be an open door policy. Rhat quickly ran out of steam and it was quite clear that there were a lot of things that weren't being told to the staff about the agenda of Telstra and why they opened Stellar.
In February of 1999 the CEPU started to agitate for entry into the building and a number of us spoke to representatives - Ian MacLean and Marilyn Swan - who basically said: everyone here should be looking a little bit closer at what you're doing,. because you're being paid one third less than the Telstra award and you are working longer hours, you are not getting loadings for any extra overtime, you're not getting loadings for public holidays. Some of us began starting to query what was the real agenda of Telstra in opening up Stellar.
As time went on management tried to stop access to the union, tried to force staff into signing a certified agreement and then we heard that the certified agreement had been withdrawn from the Queensland Commission because the unions had opposed it, presenting reasons why Stellar should be paying correct award wages. This is where the first inference of transference of business - we had people doing the same work for Telstra working for one third less. Also there was huge resentment from the Telstra workforce towards Stellar - we found out that within Telstra they were continually making operators redundant; but there were always jobs there at Stellar for less wages.
What did you do once you realised you were managing an organisation with a problematic agenda?
I was one of the service managers within the organisation. We started talking to staff, trying to get some feedback, a couple of people joined the union, but without success. The reason being that on the Gold Coast there's high levels of unemployment and its very hard to get permanent work - so people were scared of losing their jobs. And Stellar was really good at reinforcing that fear: you've got guaranteed work, we've got an ongoing contract with Telstra, forget about the unions because this doesn't have to be a union-based organisation.
So they're using permanency as a tool for quelling any dissent?
Absolutely, the frequency of permanent work is so low on the Gold Coast that people are just thankful to have a job. Understand here that apart from two staff members who were ex-Telstra, the rest were virgins in the call centre industry. So they knew no better.
It was a gradual process of awareness; there wasn't one particular thing that people could put their hands on and say 'this is really wrong', because we were always promised by Stellar that the bonus system they had introduced on profit share would well and truly compensate people for any diminution of wages they were taking for not working for Telstra directly. It took a great deal of time for people to realise that those bonuses were not a fraction of the compensation required to get up to the Telstra award. So basically ignored any rumblings and came out with the line 'we don't mind if people belong to a union, but there's no need for it in this place'. That was basically the view of the majority of the staff - and strangely enough still is.
So what prompted you to go public?
I was sent to Sydney to recruit about 110 permanent staff for Stellar Hornsby for the State Transit Authority. I came down to employ most of the people there. My first impression was that it was a good job, only $26,000 but most of the people were from the central coast and had been unemployed for some time - so hopefully it would improve their lifestyle. But after we employed 90 per cent of these people, reference tested them and rang them up and told them they had a job, out of the blue they decided to put everyone on Australian Workplace Agreements. That was kept highly secret because they didn't want the Gold Coast workers to know that AWAs were on the way. So they literally sent a letter out to all the staff saying: if you want the job that you've been given, if you want to attend day one of induction, then you must sign an AWA, it is a condition of employment.
I believe that to be total duress, because the first thing most people do when they get a new job is go out and buy some new clothes for work. They start committing themselves mentally to having that income. Then they're told to sign an AWA or else. If they'd been up front in then interview process about the AWAs, fine; but to my way of thinking this was a subversive way of introducing the AWAs and felt very uncomfortable with that process.
I stayed on with the company through December. then I started to view a number of employment practices, the way managers were treating their staff, I confronted management with this on a number of occasions and the view of the company was: if people don't like it here they can go to buggery. I just thought this was a totally inappropriate way of treating dedicated staff. People they didn't like, they began 'managing out of the company' - particularly when the probation period was up.
At the same time I began to here about the implications of the Wilcox 'Transmission of Business' decision, that Stellar were obliged to pay all of their employees compensation to bring into line with the Telstra award. Even as managers we were told none of this. Yet after the decision, Stellar continued to refuse to do so. It all just reached a head and I decided to walk out.
I finally decided to go public after Ziggy Switkowski announced the retrenchment of 10,000 people. The cold-blooded way he delivered that terrified me because I realised that the whole reason for Stellar and the experiment they've been taking part in through opening call centres with lower wages and conditions, gave them a mechanism for divesting themselves of their permanent workforce.
And what has it taught you about the power of big organisations - particularly in ;light of the Howard Government's push for full privatisation?
The spectre of full privatisation absolutely terrifies me. Granted, the government still has some control over the operation of Telstra, But in private hands there will be no checks and balances in the way they operate and less Parliamentary scrutiny.
When the Wilcox appeal is handed down, which is imminently, I believe the unions will be victorious; I believe then there will be a further round of legal activity - in the High Court - to avoid paying their workforce the proper award. but in the end I think it will emerge that the Stellar experiment has no validity and will fail.
Interview: Telstra Troubleshooter
Andrew Hillard first blew the whistle on Mal Colstonï¿½s expenses rorts; now heï¿½s taking on Telstra over its tactics to drive down wages and conditions.
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Last Modified: 15 Nov 2005