The Services Union has accused Ipswich City Council in Queensland of getting rid of half of its customer service staff and treating the rest appallingly since it signed a contract with outsourcing company Propel Partnerships eight years ago, allegations the council strongly denies.
Under the agreement, Propel would manage (but not directly employ) the council’s customer service staff, forming a partnership between the council and the company called Services Queensland (SQ).
Sixty-seven per cent of Propel is owned by the Local Government Association of Queensland (LGAQ) and the remainder is owned by Aegis, a company which runs call centres worldwide.
Assistant Secretary of the Services Union Jenny Thomas said that since the deal went through the number of local government officers in the council’s customer service centre had been reduced from 108 staff to 52 because half the staff had left and were not replaced. She said a number of staff had left because they were dissatisfied with working conditions at the council.
The council’s CEO Jim Lindsay said Ipswich City Council also used casual agency staff at peak times but neither he nor the union could tell Government News how many additional agency staff this involved and when they worked.
But Ms Thomas claimed the Propel/LGAQ model was really aimed at casualising the workforce to save money. She said that customer service staff were moved to a separate building and managed by Propel staff.
“It’s all under the pretence of sustainability for councils and a way to save money but the reality is that it’s at the cost of jobs in local communities,” Ms Thomas said.
“It was the shadiness of the model that I think was the most alarming. It moved to very much like a call centre model. People felt removed from the council.”
Ms Thomas believes that these agency staff are paid “significantly less” for doing the same work as local government officers they work beside, with few entitlements.
She said the union supported shared service models but argued that SQ did not conform to this model.
“The whole concept, in theory, is something we support in the true nature of a shared service, which is councils getting the benefit of sharing across boundaries when the assets and staff are owned and operated by local government but this whole initiative is about making savings by removing workforce from local government authorities and therefore the industrial structures of those areas.
“There’s a concern from mayors in rural and remote communities that this model is set up to take jobs away from small communities and that’s not what local government should be about.”
Other allegations put forward by the Services Union in relation to Ipswich Council and Propel include:
• The use of strict HR practices, including staff being intensively monitored and staff being denied sick leave or carer’s leave, even in extreme circumstances;
• The number of sick days that could trigger a performance management review being cut in half;
• Staff working in the same job for years still being employed as temps;
• New employees not being employed as local government workers but directly employed by Services Queensland or employed as a temporary staff by the council before being transferred to Services Queensland;
• No backfilling of staff to cover leave, absences or maternity leave;
• Staff with higher duties or workloads not being properly remunerated;
• Generic position descriptions for each worker but staff are on “vastly different” classification levels, depending on whether they were a pre-existing council staff member or employed since SQ was established
Government News put these allegations to Ipswich City Council and also asked how the partnership had delivered customer service benefits and cost savings. This was the council’s response (in full) from CEO Jim Lindsay:
“Ipswich City Council firmly rejects all the allegations made,” Mr Lindsay said.
“Employees working in Services Queensland are council employees.
“Council continues to be a model employer that respects and acts with integrity and honesty in all employee relationship matters.”
In a later, one line email, after Government News sought clarification on staffing, Mr Lindsay added: “We use agency staff to deal with peak workloads and they are paid for by Council”.
Government News also approached Propel and LGAQ for comment.
Ipswich councillor David Palhke said he would not be voting to renew the council’s contract with Propel when it came up at the end of 2017.
“I’m not happy with them. Anecdotally, I’ve heard that a lot of the staff aren’t happy. A couple of staff have come to me personally,” Mr Palhke said.
“I’ve been told that it has saved us millions but, gee, I don’t see it.”
He said he was philosophically opposed to outsourcing council services.
“You have to ask yourself: if council is in the business of customer service, why can’t we do it ourselves? I think that’s what we should be all about,” Mr Palhke said.
Two weeks’ ago, Liverpool City Council in Western Sydney signed a similar deal with Propel to run its customer service centre, a deal which has also been mired in controversy with staff and the union saying they have been starved of information. Liverpool City Council CEO Carl Wulff was previously CEO at Ipswich Council when the council signed the contract with Propel.
Mr Pahlke said he shared the concerns of the Services Union and staff at Ipswich’s customer service centre.
“I hope that I’m proven wrong in Liverpool,” he added.
A similar deal between Mackay Regional Council and Propel to run the council’s customer services sparked staff rallies last year and criticisms that the council’s Mayor Deirdre Comerford had pushed forward the deal without consulting staff or unions properly.