Exasperated staff at Human Services will intensify strikes at Centrelink, Medicare and Child Support from Thursday next week in an attempt to break the three-year deadlock with the federal government over pay and conditions and sign a new enterprise bargaining agreement (EBA).
Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) members begin two weeks of industrial action from Thursday April 13 until April 26 with longer strikes between 7am and 8.30pm, except for April 13. These are rolling strikes, which means strikers can chose to strike for as little as half an hour or for their entire shift.
Recent strikes have involved shorter periods of time, from 1.30pm to 8.30pm or 12.30pm to 8.30pm.
Human Services and the CPSU appear to be no closer to a resolution and a new agreement than they were last year, despite the Fair Work Commission overseeing the discussions.
DHS staff have already voted down agreements three times: by 83 per cent in September 2015; 80 per cent in February 2016 and 74 per cent in November 2016.
CPSU National Secretary Nadine Flood said a fortnight of strikes in Medicare, Centrelink and Child Support showed how frustrated workers were.
“We’re talking about thousands of people with bills to pay, many of them part-time working mums on around $40,000 a year,” Ms Flood said. “DHS workers really aren’t asking for much. All they want to do is hold on to rights and conditions that have been in place for many years and allow them to balance their working and family lives.
She said ‘slow but steady’ progress made by other Commonwealth agencies but talks with DHS had achieved little.
“Our team has worked tirelessly trying to negotiate through this mess with DHS management. Those talks are ongoing and are currently being overseen by the Fair Work Commission, but there’s been no movement from DHS’s bosses or in fact any sign whatsoever that they actually want to resolve this.”
She said the strikes came at a period of high demand for DHS services and were expected to cause ‘significant disruption’ to the department and its clients.
It is not known whether the strike will affect DHS’ Mobile Services, which are helping people get emergency help in flood-hit areas of Queensland.
In the past, the Department has requested the union grant exemptions to strikes on the grounds they could cause unnecessary hardship to claimants and the CPSU said they had always agreed to these requests.
A CPSU spokesperson said it was difficult to predict the effects of the two-week strike because it depended on DHS’ contingency plans as to where the impact would be felt.
DHS General Manager Hank Jongen said that the strike action, which includes Easter and Anzac Day, was designed to disrupt DHS’ face-to-face and telephone services.
He said it was an attempt by the union to make it ‘even harder’ for people who used its services but that it would not succeed, predicting that the impact of the industrial action would be ‘minimal’ and there would no disruption to existing payments.
“Our priority is ensuring that the those most vulnerable or with urgent queries get the support they need,” Mr Jongen said. “People can also access services through myGov and the Centrelink, Medicare and Child Support mobile apps – these will not be affected by any stoppages.”
He said the union’s actions would not change the department’s bargaining position around the new Enterprise Agreement.
“The department and the CPSU are currently making progress in bargaining before the Fair Work Commission. We are disappointed the union is initiating more industrial action while we continue to bargain in good faith.
“In our most recent offer we committed to maintaining virtually all existing staff entitlements, including all our family friendly entitlements. We are also offering staff a pay rise that is both affordable and in line with community standards.”