Trust and morale eroded during APS bargaining: women hit hardest



Trust and morale has fallen among workers in the Australian Public Service (APS) since enterprise bargaining began in 2014, say two workplace academics, and it is women who have been hardest hit.

UNSW Sydney academics Dr Sue Williamson and Professor Michael O’Donnell paint a bleak picture of life in the APS since the bargaining deadlock, in their submission to the Senate Standing Committee on Education and Employment.

The Committee is conducting an inquiry into the impact of the federal government’s workplace bargaining policy and its approach to public sector bargaining and there will be a public hearing today (Friday).

Their academics’ submission said: “It is noteworthy that the proportion of employees expressing dissatisfaction with their terms and conditions of employment has declined throughout the current bargaining period.

“This may be due to the low wage rise on offer, reductions to conditions of employment, and the movement of workplace entitlements into human resource policies.”

They said the psychological contract” between workers and their departments could be damaged by prolonged bargaining and industrial action and harm mutual obligations and trust.

The impact of this could be that workers did not put in any extra effort at work, while relationships could sour between workers and management.

“The sense of a breach of the psychological contract can be exacerbated when employees experience increasing workloads and stagnating wages, as has occurred in the APS throughout the bargaining period,” they said, before concluding: “The prolonged bargaining in the APS, combined with decreasing staff numbers, suggest that trust and morale is likely to be declining in the APS.”

The two academics said that their research had shown that prolonged and/or hostile collective bargaining undermined employee engagement and trust, pointing to the 2014 disagreement over pay and conditions for Australian Defence Force personnel, which they said had “undermined trust between military personnel and their organisation”.

They also called out the government on the “disproportionately negative impact” that the lengthy APS bargaining process had had on women, particularly around attempts to water down entitlements or remove them from the EBA and move them into policy, where they could ultimately be changed.

This includes areas such as flexible working arrangements, domestic violence leave and being entitled to work part-time after returning from maternity leave.

“Other gender equality or flexible working arrangements clauses have also been amended – or removed – from agreements, to the future detriment of employees,” they said.

“Some agencies have reduced important part-time working provisions.”

One agency had changed a clause so staff no longer had the right to work part-time when they return from parental leave, leaving it up to managers to decide.

“Yet another clause removes the requirement for managers to provide written reasons for their decision on an application for an employee to work part-time and also removes a principles-based clause that part-time employees should be considered for promotion on merit.” 

Meanwhile union representatives for the behemoth Department of Human Services (DHS), whose workforce of around 35,000 is more than 70 per cent female, agreed that women and families would suffer most from the changes to working conditions and rights.

Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) bargaining representatives said the proposed changes could leave staff with little control over their own working hours or force them to work spilt shifts.

Union representatives said that Human Services staff were under more and more pressure to deliver services with fewer staff in the face of rising levels of client aggression.

The CPSU DHS submission said: “In addition to these growing pressures, DHS employees are feeling the direct impacts of the government’s failure to conclude workplace bargaining, almost three years after the process began.

“The government’s bargaining policy would make them worse off, give them less control over any element of their working lives, and put them under increasing personal and workplace pressure.”

They said staff feared having their rosters changed unilaterally by managers so that, in some cases, they could no longer stay at their jobs because they could not make the school pick-up.

The Union’s submission slammed the public sector bargaining process as “an abject failure” where despised and rejected agreements were merely reheated for staff to vote on without genuine consultation, “People’s biggest concern is the removal of control over working hours for those working in a rostered environment, with issues around consultation, rights for part-timers and casuals and access to trained workplace delegates also high on the list.”

The Union said that if the cuts to working conditions went through and staff lost control over their hours they were much more likely to disengage from their jobs.

Threats to the ability of DHS employees to have a say over their hours of work and to protect their workplace rights has eroded the employment relationship, which was based on trust.

“People no longer trust the department to make the right decisions for their staff or their customers.”

The current DHS agreement expired in December 2014. DHS staff have rejected new agreements twice since then: in September 2015 (83%) and again in February 2016 (79.5%). A third ballot closes on November 13.

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