You’ve heard about the Telecom dispute. But while a lot of the focus has been on what it means for the lines engineers involved, an equally important issue is what it means for the future of our country’s infrastructure.
Because basically, this whole dispute is a sympton of Telecom’s attempts to increase its profits at the cost of network maintenance.
It works like this. Telecom used to have two big contractors, Downer EDI and Transfield Services, and they managed Telecom’s lines engineers as paid staff with full employment rights. Now Telecom has introduced a third contractor, Visionstream, to take over Auckland and Northland.
Visionstream’s been brought in because they can drive down costs for Telecom. The way they do this is to attack the wages and job security of its worforce by making them redundant, stripping them of their employment status and trying to force them to buy their jobs back as dependent contractors.
The independent analysis on this is clear – the lines engineers would take an income hit of 50-65%, they’d have no guaranteed hours and they’d have to shoulder huge business risks. And all that’s after shelling out up to $60,000 to buy back their own van and tools.
To keep up, the other contractors are having to cut labour costs too. Downer EDI is trying to force its workers onto piece rates while Transfield is doing it the old fashioned way – they’ve just made 154 staff redundant. Obviously these workers were still needed to maintain the network a month ago, the only thing that’s changed is the terms of Telecom’s contract.
The pattern here is a single-minded drive from Telecom to increase its short-term profit at the expense of its workforce and the maintenance of our vital telecommunications infrastructure.
The end result, if it succeeds, will be to force hundreds of skilled engineers to leave for Australia where the Rudd Government’s massive broadband investment policy is creating plnety of new, well-paid jobs. Those that stay here will be forced to work longer hours and quality will be put at risk as workers paid on piece rates have to get through as many jobs as possible.
At a time when the Government is meant to be rolling out its own broadband investment plan, the last thing we need is a diminshed and overstretched workforce. On the immediate level the blame is Telecom’s – they’re the ones calling the shots and they’re the ones with the power to fix it.
Fundamentally though, this is what we get for privatising vital infrastructure. Telecom’s interests are not necessarily same as New Zealand’s interests, and since they own the network what they can do what they want. They’re effectively asset stripping, running down the workforce and, with it, the network, at the same time as we want to be upgrading it.
Telecom needs to get its act together and think of the consequences of its penny-pinching. And if they won’t learn themselves, hopefully its unionised workforce and New Zealand consumers will teach them a sharp lesson.
We need to learn the lesson: privatisation doesn’t work.