Government announces 1000 more private contractors to answer Centrelink phones

By a supporter in Victoria

The Coalition government’s drive to privatise Centrelink services will be pushed up another notch, with the major expansion of the contracting out of answering services.

Four times as many  jobs as has been the case so far, will be handed over to the private sector. The union covering Centrelink employees, the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) has branded this as “damaging and cynical,” and is hitting back with a public campaign to put a stop to it.

The 1,000 new contractors are to answer calls from Centrelink benefit recipients. The minister for Human Services, Michael Keenan, said that this will cut the long waiting times that plague the system. Last year, 55 million callers got the engaged signal. This, he suggests, will be cut down too.

But the union disputes the claim. A trial that was already taken place, through the contracting out of  250 private call centre call centre jobs to multinational Serco, and this has made little difference. it is suggested that the objective has always been to undermine job security within Centrelink, not to improve service.

CPSU national secretary Nadine Flood said its members in Centrelink had told the union that Serco contractors had been used to “fudge” damning statistics showing poor phone service standards at the welfare agency.

The Department of Human Services, which oversees Centrelink, was paying call centre contractors to “click through” calls to improve its statistics, without resolving clients’ problems, she said.

“We’ve been calling loudly for years for more permanent Centrelink call centre staff to replace the more than 5000 jobs the Turnbull government has slashed in this department.

“Instead the government is continuing to sell the agency off piece by piece, lining the pockets of their corporate mates like Serco rather than putting that money into wages and secure jobs for call centre workers.”

The union has pointed out that the government has again used the cynical tactic of deliberately cutting Centrelink and providing an appalling standard of services, and then using this as a justification for privatisation of a critical public service.

Contracting out work will be paid for to the tune of $51.7 million over three years, from the existing allocated budget, meaning that there will be cuts elsewhere. The new contracting jobs are not permanent, and this amounts to the deliberate casualisation of existing Centrelink work.

Critics have canned the move for failing to use properly trained and experienced staff, equipped to deal with what can be complex issues.

The Coalition announced its intention to cut nearly 1,200 jobs from the department and the intention to progressively computerise responses to telephone calls, and even to transfer applications for benefits to an online service, in last year’s federal budget. How this is going to improve the quality of outcomes has not been explained.

Concern over the security of the private of information of recipients receiving income support is serious. By creating a situation where contracting firms can make a profit out of this information, the risk that it will be sold to other parties is real. Private information should not be transformed into a business opportunity.  It should be handled with discretion as a public service.

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