ETU Media Releases

Thousands of workers that tirelessly run the NSW electricity network woke this morning to an unprecedented attack from their own management, with veiled threats that they face a choice between cuts to their wages and conditions, or mass outsourcing of jobs.

Power industry unions described the attack by Networks NSW CEO Vince Graham — the highest paid public servant in the state — as a cowardly act aimed at running the political agenda of his Liberal Party masters in Macquarie Street.

The Electrical Trades Union and United Services Union, which represent thousands of workers at Ausgrid, Endeavour Energy, Essential Energy and TransGrid, said Mr Graham was using selective facts and misinformation to falsely blame workers for high power prices.

“Not only has Mr Graham launched an unprecedented attack on his own workforce — falsely telling every power consumer in NSW that these workers are the reason for their high power bills — but he has also issued a veiled threat to their very jobs,” USU general secretary Graeme Kelly said.

“By claiming that wages and conditions will inevitably ‘drive the outsourcing of existing jobs’, Mr Graham has issued an ultimatum to thousands of workers to either accept pay cuts or lose their jobs.

“This is an extraordinary action for a CEO, is terrible for staff morale, and creates division and animosity in the workplace and the broader community.”

The unions said that wages actually make up less than $200 of the annual power bills of the average family, with the dividends paid to the NSW Government adding more than double that amount.

“Every year the average NSW family pays $450 in their power bills that go directly to the NSW Government as profits, which is more than double the cost of the workforce that ensure reliable, safe electricity is provided to homes across the state,” Electrical Trades Union secretary Steve Butler said.

“During the last two years, NSW power workers received pay increases of just 2.45 per cent, which added less than fifty cents per month to the average electricity customer.

“Meanwhile, Vince Graham’s salary package increased by a whopping 27 per cent last year, taking his total package to almost $1 million and making him the highest paid public servant in NSW.”

Mr Kelly said that Vince Graham had also failed to acknowledge the fact that South Australia, which privatised electricity in the 1990’s, had the highest electricity prices in the nation, while privately-run power in Victoria delivered identical prices to the public network in NSW.

“Wages and conditions in the NSW power industry are in line with other states, including those with privatised power networks, because without competitive wages, highly skilled professionals would leave the workforce,” Mr Kelly said.

 

SOME FACTS ABOUT ELECTRICITY WORKERS

  • Power industry Workers are highly skilled and work in a dangerous industry where workplace fatalities are not uncommon.
  • Wages and conditions in the NSW power industry are consistent with other States, including those with privatised power networks.

  • Profits, paid to the NSW Government as dividends, contribute $450 per year to the average power bill, wages make up $198, or just 11.4 per cent, of bills.

  • According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the average Australian wage is $78,878, a category the vast majority of NSW power industry workers fit in to.

  • Over the last two years, NSW power workers received pay increases of 2.45 per cent, adding less than fifty cents per month to the bill of an average electricity customer.

  • These wage rises were part of ensuring that NSW retained the highly skilled and qualified workforce required to reconnect power during times of need, such as during the extreme weather experienced across NSW this week.

  • The head of Network NSW Vince Graham fails to mention that last year his package increased by 27 per cent, making him the highest paid public servant in NSW with a package approaching $1 million.

  • Some contractors may pay lower wages, they often take short cuts to reduce costs, potentially placing members of the public at risk.

  • The ETU supports delivering competitive electricity prices to consumers, but we disagree that using cheaper contractors that take short cuts is the best way to achieve this.

Energy workers on the Central Coast fear they have been exposed to asbestos fibres after contamination tests carried out by a specialist hygienist confirmed the presence of the deadly substance at the Ausgrid depot in Noraville.

Electrical Trades Union spokesman Mark Buttigieg said it was believed that the asbestos fibres were disturbed during the process of transferring equipment from the soon-to-be retired Noraville depot to a new Ausgrid facility at Ourimbah.

“What we believe has happened is that a number of boxes have been disturbed during the move between depots, resulting in airborne asbestos fibres being detected at the Noraville depot,” Mr Buttigieg said.

“The union immediately advised all members not to enter the Noraville depot until further testing can take place and required remedial work is carried out.

“We are also advising members not to go anywhere near the new stores depot at Ourimbah, as this is where the material that is suspected of being contaminated has been transported to.

“What is most disturbing is that the workers did not find out about the contamination and potential exposure from management, but from a contractor.

“It was not until management were confronted that they admitted a positive result to airborne asbestos had been received.

“All it takes is a single fibre to become lodged in a person’s lungs and that person could face a long and painful death from mesothelioma – a cancer caused only by asbestos.

“Given the serious nature of airborne asbestos, the ETU would have expected management to act swiftly to notify the local workforce of the test results.

“It is very disappointing that they had to find out through other means.

“We are continuing to work with management to ensure all appropriate steps are taken to fix this situation and we have advised any members that were in the vicinity to complete a record of potential exposure to asbestos.”

For the first time in more than half a century, not one new apprentice will start work with the electricity poles and wires companies next year, in a move unions fear is part of the process of “fattening up” the companies for privatisation.

Management at Endeavour Energy, Ausgrid and Essential Energy this week confirmed that the usual apprentice intake at the beginning of each year will be postponed for at least six months and take on fewer, if any, young workers.

An investigation by the Electrical Trades Union into apprenticeship numbers at the three companies has also revealed that since the Coalition Government was elected in 2011, apprentice intakes have been slashed by more than two thirds.

The ETU believes the drastic reduction in training places for the specialist electrical workers that maintain the electricity network will have a major impact on the availability of the skills to build, maintain and repai  r the poles and wires in future.

“At the start of 2011, Endeavour Energy, Ausgrid and Essential Energy hired a combined 315 new apprentices across NSW, providing an investment in the skills of the young workers who will become the future of the industry,” ETU NSW secretary Steve Butler said.

“By this year, the number of new apprenticeships offered had plunged to just 88.

“We have now discovered that all three companies have abandoned any intake of new apprentices for the start of next year.

“We believe there has been a directive given to these publicly-owned businesses to halt their training programs for new staff in an attempt to fatten up their profitability ahead of Mike Baird’s planned sell off.”

Mr Butler said that for more than half a century, a new group of electrical apprentices had started work with poles and wires companies each January, securing the needed skills for the future.

“This is the first time in the memory of anyone working in the industry that not one new apprentice will walk through the door at the start of the year,” he said.

“While the Baird Government will likely spin the reasons for this, there is no doubt in our minds that the drastic reduction in apprentice numbers in recent years — and the complete halt to the program next year — is part of the preparation for privatisation.

“Mike Baird wants to hand over control of these companies to the private sector as soon as possible after the March election, which is why he is looking to reduce the budget spent on training so the books appear more appealing to potential buyers.

“In Victoria, where the electricity network was sold off to overseas owners in the 1990’s, there were no new apprentices engaged at all in the following years, which is exactly what now looks like happening in NSW.

“The only way to ensure the people of NSW will have reliable, affordable and well-maintained electricity services in the decades ahead is to make sure the specialist skills required are passed on to a new batch of workers each year.

“In their rush for profits, the NSW Government has decided it would rather make a quick buck now, leaving future generations with the inevitable problems caused by skills shortages.”

Apprentice intake numbers by company and year:

 

Ausgrid

Endeavour Energy

Essential Energy

2010

151

60

129

2011

153

60

102

2012

81

45

116

2013

49

28

59

2014

38

20

30

2015

0

0

0

The NSW Government is being urged to immediately implement a plan to locate, identify and remediate homes containing Mr Fluffy asbestos fibre to rotect residents and tradespeople following the death of a Canberra electrician this week.

John Jorritsma, an electrician who was exposed to asbestos while crawling through the roof spaces of Mr Fluffy homes, died on Wednesday from Mesothelioma, an incurable cancer caused solely by asbestos exposure.

The Electrical Trades Union said that while millions was spent remediating properties in the ACT that contained the Mr Fluffy product — made of highly-dangerous loose asbestos fibres that were pumped into the roof — the NSW Government had never acted.

ETU NSW secretary Steve Butler said he feared electricians and other tradespeople were continuing to be exposed to the loose asbestos fibres that were also used in Queanbeyan and other parts of the State’s south-east.

“Mr Jorritsma’s tragic death is a stark reminder of the dangers of asbestos, in particular to tradespeople,” Mr Butler said.

“The loose asbestos fibres used by Mr Fluffy are the most dangerous form of this deadly substance, easily becoming airborne where they are inhaled and lodge in the lungs.

“With an unknown number of houses in NSW still containing this insulation product — and no warning notices or information for tradespeople working on those properties — I have no doubt that without government action more tradespeople will suffer Mr Jorritsma’s fate.”

Mr Butler called on the NSW Government to end decades of inertia and take immediate action to address the Mr Fluffy issue.

“It has been known for decades that this product is deadly, and that it is still in many NSW homes, yet there has been no action to proactively identify the properties, provide warnings for residents and tradespeople, and to remove the risk,” he said.

“If the NSW Government continues to sit on its hands, more people will be exposed to asbestos and more lives will be cut short.”

The Electrical Trades Union has welcomed a decision by Essential Energy to commence a rollout of 186 portable defibrillators at work depots and offices across New South Wales.

The union said the devices, which will be taken on the road by crews as they carry out maintenance and repair work on the electricity poles and wires, had the potential to save lives in a dangerous industry.

ETU NSW Secretary Steve Butler said the union had been campaigning for defibrillators to  become a core safety item on all electricity network trucks following the tragic death of Essential Energy worker Trevor Tooze on the mid-North Coast in September last year.

“Trevor was working on an upgrade of high-voltage power lines when an electric shock stopped his heart,” Mr Butler said.

“His colleagues performed CPR, but because of the remoteness of the work site it took more than half an hour for an ambulance to arrive.

“The first thing paramedics did was place a defibrillator on him, but unfortunately it had already been too long, and they were unable to resuscitate him.

“A portable defibrillator on his work truck would have allowed treatment within minutes, which research shows would have greatly increased his chances of survival.”

Mr Butler said the union had commissioned independent research showing that portable defibrillators could make the difference between life and death, as well as meeting with former Energy Minister Chris Hartcher and lobbying power companies to act.

“Ausgrid and Endeavour Energy were quick to act, procuring and deploying an additional 135 defibrillator units for their field staff last year,” he said.

“Despite having the largest network area — totaling more than 200,000 kilometres of power lines across the state — Essential Energy instead chose to conduct a small trial in one part of the state, delaying their rollout for more than six months.

“Regional power workers are at a greater risk of preventable death caused by electric shocks because many of their work sites are in remote areas, far from medical assistance.”

Mr Butler said the union was continuing its campaign on the issue, saying that to deliver the highest level of protection there should be a portable defibrillator on every electricity truck.

Premier Mike Baird has been accused of commissioning a publicly-funded report based on fudged numbers and deceptive claims in a last-ditch effort to force his unpopular plan for privatising the electricity poles and wires through meetings of government MPs today.

The report, authored by EY, not only fails to examine the real power prices paid by consumers, instead examining the cost of “network charges”, but it relies on assumptions instead of actual electricity contract pricing, is loaded with exceptions and qualifications, and deliberately omits the most recent publicly available price data.

The document also exposes as a lie statements from Mr Baird and former Premier Barry O’Farrell in recent months that there were “no plans” for electricity network privatisation, with EY confirming they were formally engaged by NSW Treasury to carry out the research on February 21, almost four months ago.

Stop the Sell Off campaign director Adam Kerslake said the report, which compresses two decades of power policy in four states into just 16 pages, contains little credible power price analysis and is little more than a brochure to promote the plan to sell 49 per cent of the publicly owned companies Ausgrid, Endeavour Energy, Essential Energy and TransGrid.

“The reason this report examined network costs rather than the real prices electricity consumers pay is because the Premier knew that the privatised power networks in Victoria and South Australia would have come up short,” Mr Kerslake said.

“This report shows that those states have massively under-invested in their electricity network, yet the fact remains that the most recent report from the Australian Energy Regulator said power prices in South Australia were the highest in Australia, while Victorian prices are the same as those in NSW.

“Our warning that private owners of electricity assets will cut network investment in their quest for increased profits is also confirmed, with the figures showing chronic under-investment in the privatised states.

“This lack of investment was highlighted by the Victorian Bushfire Royal Commission, which found poor maintenance on power lines caused five of the deadly Black Saturday bushfires that claimed 173 lives.

“It is also the reason that during periods of high demand, such as extreme weather, the Victorian and South Australian networks often fail, while our publicly-owned network remains safe and operational.”

Mr Kerslake said the major reason behind increases to network charges in NSW in recent years were changes to the network reliability standard, which had delivered more reliable services.

"NSW electricity consumers have just paid for a comprehensive network upgrade, costing $15.2 billion between 2009 and 2014, to make sure they have access to a safe, reliable power supply,” he said.

“While this investment cycle has just come to an end in our state, it is about to commence in Victoria and South Australia, meaning network costs in those states will need to increase.

“Extraordinarily, now that taxpayers have funded the vital upgrades we needed to take our electricity network into the future, Premier Mike Baird wants to hand over these assets to his private sector mates.”

The EY report has also come under fire for its questionable methodology, reliance on assumptions rather than actual electricity prices, selective timeframes, and use of out-dated reports from the Australian Energy Regulator.

“We’re happy to have a debate built on facts, but what the Premier has delivered is a highly questionable report with holes so big you could drive a truck through them,” Mr Kerslake said.

“It has clearly been commissioned with the aim of delivering a predetermined outcome, which is why it focused on network charges rather than the actual prices paid by consumers.

“The only way to provide a truthful comparison to the people of NSW is by using the actual price consumers pay for their electricity — rather than the network charges which make up just one component of power pricing.”

Mr Kerslake said that the core issue of how privatisation would impact on electricity consumers, power workers, and the broader community had still not been addressed by the Premier.

“A seemingly endless procession of government MPs have come out in the last week to warn that privatisation will cause higher prices, reduced services, and the loss of jobs,” he said.

“The only way to avoid these outcomes is to keep these profitable power companies in public hands.

“Job guarantees are temporary, power price regulations are difficult, and the enforcement of service standards is challenging — as we saw with the Black Saturday bushfires — meaning whatever the Premier’s promises are, there’s no way he can deliver on them.

“Mike Baird seems hell bent on this ideologically-driven privatisation, leaving it up to his Liberal and National Party MPs to stand up to him, defend the best interests of their local communities, and vote down this plan.

“At the very least they must ensure the people of NSW get a say on the future of their most valuable public asset through a referendum on the future of our electricity network.”

Read the highly conditional EY report: Electricity Network Services: Long-term trends in price and cost

 

Incoming NSW Premier Mike Baird needs to learn from the Australian Water Holdings inquiry by pushing back against the lobbyists, vested interest groups and Liberal Party insiders advocating for the sale of the publicly owned electricity poles and wires.

The Electrical Trades Union is warning that the power privatisation debate has similarities to the AWH scandal, with those hoping to gain financially from a sale using their influence to push the NSW Government towards a policy opposed by the overwhelming majority of voters.

The union said one of the most ardent advocates for a sell off, Infrastructure Partnerships Australia, has strong links to the Liberal Party and Mr Baird personally, with IPA CEO Brendan Lyon being a former Liberal Party member and former employee of the incoming Premier’s father, Bruce Baird.

In addition, former Liberal Premier Nick Griener and former Victorian Liberal Minister Mark Birrell are “patrons” of IPA, with their connections presumably used to open doors at a state and federal level.

ETU secretary Steve Butler said that if Mr Baird wanted to clear the stench of corruption from NSW politics, his first actions should be to stand up against the influence of big money on government policy.

“The push to privatise our publicly owned power assets isn’t being driven by the public — independent polling has consistently shown they are  overwhelmingly opposed — instead it is being advocated by vested interests and political lobbyists to deliver a financial windfall for their privatesector backers,” Mr Butler said.

“At its core, the AWH scandal was about private individuals seeking to enrich themselves on public assets, and trying to manipulate our political system to deliver that outcome.

“We are seeing the exact same approach to power privatisation, with Liberal Party insiders, well-paid lobbyists, and vested interest groups using their influence to try and see the electricity poles and wires handed to the private sector for their financial benefit.”

Mr Butler said that while Mr Baird had been an advocate for a sell off as Treasurer, the job of Premier requires him to set aside his personal views and represent the interests of the NSW community.

“The facts are that not only do the vast majority of people in NSW oppose the sale of Essential Energy, Endeavour Energy, Ausgrid, Transgrid and Snowy Hydro, even Mr Baird’s National Party colleagues are opposed to it, with a unanimous motion against privatisation passed at their state conference last year,” he said.

“The Opposition and minor parties in the Upper House are also opposed to any sale, in line with the position of the vast majority of voters.

“Selling these publicly owned monopolies will spell disaster for NSW, with the likely result being higher electricity prices, reduced services, poor reliability, and the loss of jobs.

“Mr Baird has an obligation to come clean with the people of NSW and confirm once and for all if he plans to push ahead with a sale, benefitting an exclusive few, or will he learn from AWH and fight back against the influence of lobbyists and special interest groups on the NSW Government.”

Vulnerable consumers will face higher power prices following the NSW Government’s decision to deregulate the electricity market, removing the safety net provided by the Independent Regulatory and Pricing Tribunal.

Claims by NSW Energy Minister Anthony Roberts that household power bills could drop by $300 to $400 a year from deregulated electricity prices — in a decision that replicates the current system in South Australia and Victoria — are not backed up by the experiences of those states.

Electrical Trades Union secretary Steve Butler said the latest Australian Energy Regulator report, released last month, showed South Australia now had the highest average household power bills in Australia — despite having a fully privatised and deregulated electricity market.

“When the electricity retailers were privatised in NSW, a regulated electricity market was put in place to provide a safety net for all electricity consumers by putting a lid on price rises,” Mr Butler said.

“That system, recognising that electricity contracts are complicated and hard to understand, was designed to protect the most vulnerable people in our society from being taken advantage of with bad power deals.”

Mr Butler said there was nothing in the current system that prevented suppliers from charging less than the regulated price for electricity, however from July 1 there would no longer be an upper limit.

“The NSW Government’s claim that by following the lead of Victoria and South Australia electricity consumers will save hundreds of dollars from their bills is simply not true,” he said.

“The Federal Government’s own Australian Energy Regulator has found that the deregulated energy market in South Australia has resulted in the highest electricity prices in Australia, with average household power bills now reaching $2335 a year, and the number of complaints soaring to 50,655.

“The situation has become so bad there that two in every five South Australian electricity customers are now on hardship programs.

“In Victoria, average annual electricity bills are the same as in NSW, however the price gap between cheapest and most expensive contracts is the largest in the country, showing vulnerable consumers are suffering the most from unfair power prices.

“You only have to look at those people championing privatisation and deregulation of essential services to see exactly who will benefit from these policies.

“Today’s announcement was not pushed for by electricity customers, rather it is the big electricity providers that have been lobbying the NSW Governments to remove this safety net so they can start charging what  they like.”

Essential Energy has been urged to immediately roll out lifesaving defibrillators across the state, bringing safety standards for their predominantly rural and regional workforce in line with metropolitan power companies.

The Electrical Trades Union last year commissioned independent research that has found portable defibrillators provided an effective, affordable, reliable opportunity to prevent accidental deaths among the thousands of workers who carry out dangerous maintenance and repair work on the State’s electricity poles and wires.

While Ausgrid and Endeavour Energy both responded with an immediate move towards rolling out of the devices across their entire service area, Essential Energy — which operates the electricity network across 95 per cent of NSW — only agreed to trial 20 defibrillators in the Tamworth area.

ETU NSW assistant secretary Neville Betts said staff were furious that, despite regional power workers being at greater risk of preventable deaths caused by electric shocks, Essential Energy was continuing to drag its heals.

“This is a company that has thousands of employees maintaining more than 200,000 kilometres of powerlines across the state — often in places far from emergency services — yet they are being denied a lifesaving device that has already been provided to their city counterparts,” Mr Betts said.

“It’s time Essential Energy ended this farcical trial and committed to an immediate and full  rollout of this proven safety equipment across their network.”

Mr Betts said that of all the electricity distribution companies in NSW, Essential Energy had the worst fatality rate.

“The union raised the importance of defibrillators with former NSW Energy Minister Chris Hartcher and all the electricity network companies in meetings last year,” he said.

“While the former Minister, Ausgrid and Endeavour Energy were very supportive, and responded with an immediate rollout, Essential Energy instead opted to simply conduct a trial.

“Why Essential Energy would need to conduct a trial is beyond me, particular given that portable defibrillators are proven technology that the entire sector accepts.”

The union said Essential Energy’s refusal to act on the issue was made even worse by the fact that one of their employees died last year after an electric shock stopped his heart.

“Trevor Tooze, an experienced Essential Energy employee, was working on an upgrade of high-voltage power lines on the mid-North Coast when he suffered an electric shock,” Mr Betts said.

“While quick-thinking colleagues performed CPR on him, it took more than half an hour for an ambulance to arrive due to the remoteness of the work site.

“The first thing the paramedics did when they arrived was place a defibrillator on him, but unfortunately it was too late.

“A portable defibrillator on his work truck would have allowed him to receive treatment within minutes, which would have greatly increased his chances of survival.”

Mr Betts said defibrillators were affordable and should be placed on work trucks along-side other common safety equipment.

“Portable defibrillators only cost around $3,000 per unit, which is not expensive when compared to other essential safety equipment carried by Essential Energy,” he said.

“For example, the insulated ladders that can be found on every Essential Energy truck cost around $2,000 each. The fact is you can’t put a price on safety.

“Given their affordability and their proven record in saving lives, I don’t know why Essential Energy is continuing to sit on their hands and avoid a network-wide roll out of this lifesaving equipment.”

The O’Farrell Government has been caught attempting to sell out the people of NSW for the sake of a quick buck, with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission today ruling against the acquisition of publicly-owned Macquarie Generation by AGL Energy.

The Electrical Trades Union is urging Treasurer Mike Baird to stand by his statement last month that, should the ACCC reject AGL’s offer, the NSW Government would retain ownership of Macquarie Generation so that it could continue as an independent competitor in the electricity marketplace.

ETU spokesman Adam Kerslake said the ACCC’s decision confirmed the union’s view that the privatisation would have reduced competition, restricted the entry of new retailers, and led to higher power prices for the people of NSW.

“The ACCC has confirmed that the sale of Macquarie Generation to AGL is not in the best interest of NSW consumers,” Mr Kerslake said.

“It’s time for Mike Baird to stop trying to sell out the people of NSW for a quick buck and instead commit to retaining Macquarie Generation in public hands so that it can continue to provide effective competition in the sector and keep down power prices.

“If the ACCC could see this sale was bad for competition, and most of the market feedback to their enquiry opposed the deal on those same grounds, how is it possible that the Treasurer of NSW was being honest when he claimed this sale would drive down power prices.”

ACCC chairman Rod Sims mirrored the concerns of the ETU’s submission in his announcement this morning, saying that to allow the sale would have meant the three largest electricity retailers in NSW would also own up to 80 per cent of electricity generation capacity, raising barriers to the entry of other retailers are reducing competition.

Mr Kerslake said the NSW Government had completely mismanaged the sale of Macquarie Generation, owner of the Liddell and Bayswater power stations that collectively provide more than a quarter of the state’s power generation capacity.

“The community has been let down by the NSW Government, and in particular the Treasurer who oversaw this botched sale,” Mr Kerslake said.

“It’s been left to the ACCC to save the people of NSW from anti-competitive arrangement that would have reduced competition and forced up power prices.

“If the O’Farrell Government was fair dinkum about delivering the best outcome for the people of NSW they should never have tried to sell Macquarie Generation in the first place.

“Now that the ACCC has called out the NSW Treasurer on his claims that the privatisation of these publicly owned electricity generators would result in greater competition and lower prices, it’s time for Mike Baird to stand up in parliament and apologise to the people of NSW as well as aborting the planned sale of Delta Coastal.”