Human Services’ staff emails are being monitored and their Facebook accounts spied on to track any leaks to the union or the press about the Centrelink robo-debt fiasco, alleges the main public sector union.
The Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) made the explosive claim when it appeared at the Senate inquiry into Centrelink’s Online Compliance Intervention (OCI) system this morning.
Unusually, no DHS staff appeared in front of the Community Affairs References Committee (Better Management of the Social Welfare System initiative) inquiry and the union said this was because staff were terrified to speak out.
CPSU Deputy National President Lisa Newman said staff were under huge pressure from the department after the media storm around robo-debt, where at least one in five benefit claimants has been sent a wrong debt notice, and they were being closely watched.
“A member told me: ‘they are watching my emails and that includes Facebook communication’,” she said.
The union said that the number of specialised DHS staff working in debt recovery teams was relatively small so individuals felt they could be identified, especially since the department’s debt recovery drive had become so politicised and come under such intense scrutiny.
Ms Newman said union members had to sneak around to convey their concerns to her about the system.
“People fear any engagement with me, lest they be subject to code of conduct action by the department,” Ms Newman said.
“All my communication is done at night via personal mobile phone talking about issues, particularly with people working in OCI teams.”
The presence of several AFP officers embedded in the department to deal with cases of criminal fraud had only increased staff paranoia, she added.
CPSU President Nadine Flood said DHS staff were used to a certain level of scrutiny but she added that the Department of Immigration snooped on its Border Force officers to an even greater degree.
Impact of robo-debt on Centrelink staff and clients
Ms Newman said the breakdown of the system was having a significant impact on staff.
Union members had reported increased stress levels and work absences; inability to sleep and a sharp rise in customer aggression and frustration, including swearing, threats and physical violence.
They also dealt with clients who were depressed, at risk of self harm or even suicidal after receiving a debt notice from the department.
“Staff are concerned and angry about what they see is being done to vulnerable people in the community and many feel morally conflicted about their role in this process,” Ms Newman said.
Ms Newman confirmed media reports that have alleged debt compliance staff were ordered not to try and fix any errors they spotted and to divert clients online, rather than deal with their inquiries face-to-face.
CPSU President Nadine Flood said Centrelink staff were copping the fall-out from robo-debt.
“A high human price is being paid, both by clients … and the people who work for the department themselves,” Ms Flood said.
She said the government seemed more focused on denying there was a problem than dealing with it.
“They should focus on treating people like people [rather than] treating people as numbers in a dataset and doing the minimum possible,” she said.
“The Department is increasingly caught in the position by government of making bad decisions. DHS as an agency is absolutely struggling … lurching from one crisis to the next.”
Ms Flood blamed the flawed debt recovery grab, which the government has claimed will net $4.5 billion, on multiple cuts to staff and budgets, which she said had left the department “no longer able to provide a basic level of service to Australians”.
Years of staff cuts, which had slashed 5,000 DHS jobs, coupled with reducing or removing human oversight from the debt compliance program and relying instead on automated data matching were partly to blame for the robo-debt mess.
The union wants the online compliance program suspended until it is fixed, frontline staff allowed to have input into the process, human oversight introduced and casual staff made permanent so they have access to proper training.
Ms Newman said she was also concerned about the record levels of appeals against debts, which appeared not to have been allocated any additional resources.
She said that some experienced officers had been removed from complex cases and inexperienced new staff drafted in their stead. Casual staff do not have access to the same training as permanent workers.
“There is great concern over the quality of the assessments that will be done,” she said.
Human Services staff, which includes workers at Centrelink, Medicare and the Child Support Agency, have not had a good run of it lately.
They remain without a new enterprise bargaining agreement after three years of stalled negotiations, having voted down the government’s proposal of six per cent over three years and the dilution of some working conditions three times.
DHS staff will speak at the senate inquiry this afternoon.