NSW public sector cuts add to job losses

By Kerry Vernon — More than 10,000 public sector workers’ jobs have been cut across NSW. Those workers remaining are having their wages and conditions further attacked.

The state Coalition government is planning changes to public sector awards that will strip workers of leave loading, penalty payments for shift workers and allowances for employees in remote areas. This will leave tens of thousands of workers — including prison officers, park rangers, disability support workers, school support staff and community services case workers — out of pocket, said the Public Service Association (PSA) general secretary, John Cahill, on August 28.

Premier Barry O’Farrell said his government plans to rely heavily on the outsourcing of government services to the private sector during the August release of the government audit of the public sector.

The Coalition government has accepted most of the 132 recommendations in the NSW Commission of Audits final report on “improving” public service management. Transport, education, water, electricity and policing are to be put to tender, as have been Sydney Ferries. Metropolitan buses, jails and prisoner transport are to be privatised, and the government will examine the sale of the Snowy Hydro.

Ticket prices for Sydney trains could increase and guards and station staff could be wound back under the recommendations. “The commission recommends that ... RailCorp consider the feasibility of implementing one-person (driver only) operated trains”, the report says.

“The commission recommends that the government consider ... expanding the number of unattended stations across the NSW railway network.” One of the report’s authors, Kerry Schott, said modern trains did not need guards “as long as there’s security staff at appropriate times”.

While some of the report is “not the current government policy”, O’Farrell said, the government has already tendered contracts to privatise metropolitan bus services from July 1. If the Coalition wins the next state election, the state’s electricity distribution businesses — or “poles and wires” — ($30 billion) will be privatised, said O’Farrell..

Hit them where it will hurt

Cuts to pensioner concessions in a range of areas will be looked at, including motor registrations, which the audit said cost the state $200 million in “forgone annual revenue”, and cutbacks to long service leave and sick leave for teachers.

“Where there is a better way of delivering a government service or program, which maintains or exceeds appropriate standards, delivers results and defends public value, I believe government is morally and economically obliged to consider it”, said O’Farrell, glossing over the impact and scale of the privatisation and public sector cutbacks.

The government set up a new “independent” transport body to oversee a 20-year transport plan. But Infrastructure NSW is increasingly at odds with the public sector agency Transport for NSW; they differ on the importance of public transport versus motorway projects, for example $20 billion for an underground motorway versus light rail or a combination of public transport.

It’s no surprise that the government-sponsored audit supported the private sector and non-government organisations delivering the oxymoron of “better services at lower cost” and “with greater innovation”.

Other workers across the state have lost their jobs or are facing pay cuts, including 330 workers whose jobs will go over two years when the Caltex oil refinery at Kurnell shuts down, also affecting another 300 contractors. Forty workers have lost their jobs at the Hunter bus maker Volgren, as have more than a thousand workers from several major construction company collapses, such as Kell and Rigby, Reed Construction, St Hilliers and the Hastie Group.

In August, under pressure from workers, their unions and the many creditors of these collapsed construction companies, the NSW government launched a belated inquiry led by finance and services minister Greg Pearce. These collapses left many workers and more than 24,000 suppliers and sub-contractors unpaid.

The state government was criticised for awarding contracts to companies that were near collapse, including St Hilliers Construction, which was awarded social housing contracts just months before it collapsed. The government has taken over 13 social housing projects from the company.

Labor’s jobs summit

In response to the loss of public and private 15,000 jobs across NSW, the Labor opposition in August called on the government to convene urgently a “jobs summit” to tackle rising unemployment in the state. O’Farrell had promised to create 100,000 new jobs in NSW, said shadow treasurer Michael Daley, the Labor MP for Maroubra, but this has not happened.

Since the election of the NSW Coalition government, O’Farrell has been testing the limits of worker and community reaction to his increasing attacks on the public sector and on other workers through, for example, supporting employers not paying penalty rates on weekends.

Workers and their unions have taken collective action in defence of wages and conditions, as when more than 5000 protested the workers compensation cuts on June 13.

The job losses, cutbacks and privatisations now on the agenda of the Coalition government will not be pushed back by Unions NSW supporting the Labor opposition’s feeble bill to set up a Jobs Commission. The only real function of the bill is to draw attention to the weakness of the Unions NSW response.

Presumably Labor hopes to be returned to government on the back of accumulated outrage after the O’Farrell government has made big cuts to the public sector by throwing many basic services to profiteers and the remaining public workers are fearful and underpaid, with an increasingly stressful workload and an angry, frustrated public. It will be too late by then.

What is needed is a carefully planned and sustained campaign of industrial action in defence of workers’ rights, wages and conditions to force this big business government to hold back from enforcing privatisation on a large scale.

Direct Action — August 30, 2012