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Unions forced to call off ban on training Ausgrid’s overseas replacement workers; call on owners to intervene

Paul Lister - Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Power unions have been forced to lift a ban on training overseas consultants hired by electricity distributor Ausgrid to replace 35 workers from Newcastle and Sydney after the Fair Work Commission threatened to issue orders against them.

Members of the United Services Union and Electrical Trades Union had been refusing to take part in training India-based IT contractors that will replace more than a third of the workforce in Ausgrid’s Geographic Information System section.

The electricity distributor launched legal action against the unions in the Fair Work Commission, with the matter heard yesterday by FWC deputy president Peter Sams.

Deputy President Sams issued a recommendation to the unions, saying he would issue binding orders against them unless the training ban was immediately lifted.

ETU secretary Dave McKinley said the outcome of the case was clear evidence that Australia’s industrial laws were stacked against the interests of working people.

“What was made clear was that — under Australia’s current workplace laws — it is unlawful for someone to take an ethical stand and refuse to train overseas contractors who have been hired to take the jobs of their colleagues,” Mr McKinley said.

“Not only does the Fair Work Act fail to protect quality local jobs, it actually prevents people from following their conscience — effectively forcing them to be part of the process of replacing friends and colleagues.

“We have agreed to lift our bans — under legal duress — but we are still looking at all available avenues to save these 35 jobs from being sent to India under the deal between Ausgrid management and Tata Consultancy Services.”

USU general secretary Graeme Kelly said it was now up to the new private owners of Ausgrid — AustralianSuper and IFM Investors — to intervene to save the jobs.

“These funds claim to ethically invest the retirement savings of Australian workers, yet they are allowing managers at a company they majority-own to slash jobs by outsourcing them to India,” Mr Kelly said.

“These investors should demonstrate their commitment to Australian jobs by ensuring these specialist positions remain in this country.

“They should also commit to abiding by the spirit of the job protections that were put in place by the NSW Parliament to prevent power privatisation from being a tool to simply slash jobs and services.

“We are also calling on the NSW Energy Minister Don Harwin to take action to ensure the state’s electricity network is operated by skilled local workers.”

Ausgrid launches legal action to force workers to train overseas replacements

Paul Lister - Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Australia’s largest electricity distributor has launched legal action to force staff members to travel to India to train a replacement workforce as part of the outsourcing of critical information technology services.

Ausgrid, which was privatised last year by the NSW Government, will this morning seek to have the Fair Work Commission rule that workers refusing to travel overseas to train contractors who will take the jobs of their colleagues are involved in unauthorised industrial action.

The company informed staff that it had signed a contract with Indian multinational Tata Consultancy Services to outsource more than a third of the workforce in the Geographic Information System section.

GIS is responsible for developing and maintaining detailed mapping information covering every element of the electricity network that provides power to more than a million homes and businesses in Sydney, Newcastle, the Hunter and Central Coast.

As a result of the outsourcing announcement, which will initially see the local workforce cut from 77 to 45, power industry unions the United Services Union and Electrical Trades Union imposed a ban on their members being involved in training contractors engaged to replace Ausgrid workers.

“It is absolutely outrageous that the new management of Ausgrid is not only sending specialist jobs overseas, but they are taking legal action to force workers to travel to India to train the consultants who will be taking these jobs,” USU general secretary Graeme Kelly said.

“If the FWC sides with management, workers will be legally forced to fly overseas and train people to take the jobs of co-workers, colleagues and friends.

“This is absolutely appalling corporate behaviour, which is why union members have taken a stand and said they won’t be involved in training contractors that will take local Ausgrid jobs.”

ETU secretary Dave McKinley said the outsourcing announcement also revealed that the company had no intention of abiding by job protections put in place ahead of the privatisation.

“The NSW Government claimed privatisation wasn’t about slashing skilled jobs or services, but less than a year after taking the reigns the new private owners are sending critical services offshore,” he said.

“Because workers can’t be forcibly sacked under the job protections imposed by the NSW Parliament, Ausgrid management instead makes redeployed staff come to work each day with nothing to do and no colleagues to interact with, mentally grinding them down until they accept a ‘voluntary’ redundancy.

“This rubber room treatment is not only appalling corporate behaviour, it’s the reason workers are so committed to ensuring their actions don’t lead to colleagues suffering this fate.”

Mr Kelly said there were also serious security concerns about the outsourcing plans.

“The Federal Government blocked the sale of Ausgrid to buyers from China and Hong Kong because of the concerns of security agencies regarding foreign control of critical electricity infrastructure, yet we now have the Australian buyers simply handing this same sensitive information over to a foreign multinational,” he said.

“If companies from China or Hong Kong having access to this infrastructure was a security risk, surely it should be concerning that an Indian multinational will be controlling critical network information.”

Mr McKinley said the unions would be vigorously defending the legal action.

“Not only do we believe workers should have the right to follow their conscience and not train a workforce of overseas contractors to take the jobs of colleagues, we also dispute the company’s claim that this amounts to industrial action,” he said.

“In a nation built on mateship, sticking up for your co-workers should be something that is praised, not dragged through the courts and punished.”

‘Code Warm’ response to electricity supply threats will do little to counter six years of government mismanagement

Paul Lister - Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The introduction of a ‘Code Warm’ protocol by the Berejiklian government, aimed to have the public sector reduce electricity demand during extreme weather, will do little to address the impact of years of mismanagement that have drastically reduced energy security for the people of NSW.

The Electrical Trades Union said the privatisation of electricity generation, transmission and distribution assets had stripped the NSW Government of the ability to directly address the threat of large-scale blackouts.

The union also highlighted the fact that several privatised power stations had been shut down by the new owners, reducing the state’s baseload power supplies in an attempt to drive up the prices their remaining power stations can achieve.

ETU secretary Dave McKinley said announcements such as the ‘Code Warm’ protocol were little more than window dressing and would do little to address the underlying issues.

“In February this year, NSW residents narrowly avoided large-scale rolling blackouts in the midst of a heatwave,” Mr McKinley said.

“The only reason the lights stayed on was that power stations in neighbouring Queensland and Victoria produced huge amounts of electricity that was transferred to NSW, while the state’s largest industrial power user had their supplies forcibly cut.

“With climate change, we know that weather events like this one are becoming more common and more extreme, yet the NSW Liberal and Nationals have spent the last six years selling off the generation and transmission assets that are vital to keeping the power on.

“Among the examples of government mismanagement is the sale of Wallerawang power station, near Lithgow, in 2014 to Chinese-owned Energy Australia. One of the first actions of this new private owner was to mothball the power station, which was capable of producing 1,000 megawatts of baseload power, to increase the profitability of their other generation assets.

“As a result of this sale and closure, the state’s electricity supplies were substantially reduced and our ability to address periods of peak demand was lost.

“While the Liberals and Nationals promised electricity privatisation would mean lower power prices, what we are increasingly seeing is less reliability and higher prices as profit-hungry foreign investors seek to maximise the return from these essential services rather than acting in the interest of the people of NSW.

“The Berejiklian government needs to admit that their claim that the private sector are better placed to provide an essential service like electricity was wrong, and start the process of directly investing in the power generation and distribution resources we need to keep the lights on in future.”

NSW at risk of widespread power failure similar to South Australia due to massive staffing cuts

Paul Lister - Thursday, September 29, 2016

The axing of more than 2,600 front-line power workers since 2012 has left NSW at risk of falling victim to similar chaos to that experienced in South Australia during the past 24 hours, the Electrical Trades Union has warned.

The union said cuts overseen by the state and federal governments over the past four years had drastically reduced the number of skilled workers available to respond to major incidents, natural disasters and wild weather, leaving the public at risk of lengthy power outages.

ETU assistant secretary Dave McKinley said the number of front-line power workers across NSW had shrunk by a quarter since 2012, leaving the state increasingly vulnerable to the kind of extreme weather event that struck South Australia.

“What has occurred in South Australia in the past 24 hours could easily happen in NSW,” Mr McKinley said.

“While it is impossible to prevent network damage caused by wild winds and extreme weather, the ability to restore power for consumers is dependent on having the skilled workers available to respond.

“In NSW, we have seen more than a quarter of the entire workforce slashed in the last four years, including 1,385 workers at Ausgrid, 446 from Endeavour Energy, and 800 from Essential Energy.

“When the next disaster inevitably hits, this loss of skilled workers will have a devastating effect on response times and the speed at which power can be reconnected, particularly in the event of a state-wide natural disaster.

“The situation had been exacerbated by the NSW Government’s decision to respond to a recent ruling by the Federal Government’s energy regulator by further slashing the number of front-line power workers.

“The people of NSW have been hung out to dry by the NSW Government, with these massive cuts inevitably going to lead to major disruptions when future disasters strike.”

Mr McKinley said the union was urging NSW power companies to send immediate assistance to South Australia, in the form of workers and specialist equipment.

“Right now, our focusing needs to be on helping the people of South Australia by diverting all available resources and skilled labour to assist with restoring electricity services,” he said.

“The union is calling on the NSW distribution and transmission network companies to provide urgent assistance to our neighbours in their time of need.

“We are also urging them to take a good hard look at the resources they have available moving forward so they can ensure they have the skilled workers and specialist equipment needed to respond to similar events when they occur in NSW.”

Ausgrid sale a bad outcome for people of NSW, regardless of what country buyers come from

Paul Lister - Friday, September 23, 2016

The Electrical Trades Union has expressed its unchanged opposition to the privatisation of NSW electricity network businesses following an unsolicited offer from an Australian consortium to buy Ausgrid, which provides electricity to consumers in Sydney, Newcastle, the Central Coast and Hunter Valley.

The union said the sale of a majority stake would be bad for workers and consumers — regardless of the nationality of the purchaser — inevitably leading to higher prices, cuts to services and job losses.

The ETU is urging bidders AustralianSuper and IFM Investors to publicly commit to the retention of current jobs and service standards, including through legally-binding job protections for all existing employees.

ETU secretary Steve Butler said the unsolicited offer came just a month after Federal Treasurer Scott Morrison blocked a similar sale of the company, citing national security concerns.

“Our position remains unchanged: handing over a monopoly asset that provides an essential service to the community to any private owner will result in higher prices for consumers and bad outcomes for workers,” he said.

“The Federal Government has been advised that it is not in Australia’s national interest for Ausgrid to be sold off to a private entity, and our view is it doesn’t matter whether that buyer is a Chinese company or an Australian super fund, the risks remain the same.

“The only way to guarantee that this company remains fully in Australian hands, and that these risks are appropriately managed, is to keep it in public ownership.”

Mr Butler said the union would continue to demand legally binding protections to jobs and services.

“Our union will continue to work with Fred Nile to ensure legislation enshrining five-year job protections for all NSW power workers are passed through the parliament,” he said.

“AustralianSuper and IFM Investors need to make a public commitment that iron-clad five-year job guarantees for all Ausgrid workers are part of their proposal.

“They also need to ensure that their model for making money out of this investment isn’t built on cutting maintenance or service standards for consumers.

“We will not back down from our commitment to protect the jobs of our members, or the services that Ausgrid provides to the people of NSW.”

Baird urged to abort Ausgrid sale after Treasurer blocks both bidders on national security grounds

Paul Lister - Thursday, August 11, 2016

Power industry unions are urging NSW Premier Mike Baird formally terminate the proposed sale of Australia’s largest electricity network business, Ausgrid, after Treasurer Scott Morrison identified serious national security risks posed by both bidders.

Chinese Government-owned State Grid Corporation of China and Hong Kong-based Cheung Kong Infrastructure, controlled by billionaire Li Ka-shing, were the only remaining companies seeking to take control of the Ausgrid network, which provides electricity to millions of homes and businesses in Sydney, Newcastle and the Central Coast.

The Electrical Trades Union and United Services Union, which represent Ausgrid workers, welcomed the Treasurer’s preliminary decision, urging Mr Morrison to stand firm in the face of expected lobbying from Chinese interests and the Baird Government.

ETU secretary Steve Butler said unions had been warning that the sale of Ausgrid to overseas interests was not in the national interest for more than two years.

“We have warned, time and again, that selling an essential service to a foreign investor or government poses serious risks to security, yet the Baird Governments only response has been to accuse us of racism and xenophobia,” he said.

“Today we have been vindicated, with Treasurer Scott Morrison and the Foreign Investment Review Board confirming what we have been saying all along.

“A monopoly asset that not only provides power to millions of homes and businesses, but also to countless government, defence and other critical facilities, is not something that should be sold off to any foreign investor or foreign government, regardless of what corner of the globe they come from.”

USU general secretary Graeme Kelly said Mike Baird’s power privatisation plans were in tatters.

“The only option left for Mike Baird is to abort this sale and commit to keeping our electricity distribution network in public hands,” he said.

“There are only two bidders left for Ausgrid, and the Treasurer has found both pose an unacceptable risk to our national security if they were allowed to take control of the company.

“It’s time the Baird Government stepped back from their ideologically driven privatisation push and put the interests of the Australian people ahead of a short-term cash windfall.”

NSW Government urged to close loophole as Ausgrid tries to circumvent legislated job protections

Paul Lister - Monday, July 25, 2016

The NSW Government is under pressure to close a potential loophole in legislation guaranteeing five year job protections as part of the Baird Government’s electricity privatisation program after Ausgrid revealed plans to overturn the agreement.

Christian Democrats MLC Rev. Fred Nile secured the five year employment guarantees as a condition of his support for the sale of majority stakes in Ausgrid and Endeavour Energy following concerns that jobs could be slashed by new private owners.

The Electrical Trades Union last week held urgent discussions with Rev. Nile after the largest of the companies, Ausgrid, wrote to the union revealing it would be pursuing a potential loophole which it believes will allow the introduction of forced redundancies.

The union welcomed Rev. Nile’s commitment to ensure the Baird Government lived up to the spirit of his negotiated job protections and indicated that he would be seeking to have a clause inserted into sale contract for the 99 year lease to ensure that the job protections are adhered to.

Rev. Nile also indicated that he would seek to amend the Electricity Network Assets (Authorised Transactions) Act when parliament resumes next month to close the loophole.

ETU secretary Steve Butler commended Rev. Nile’s commitment to ensure the job protection provisions he negotiated last year were adhered to by the NSW Government and potential buyers.

“When Mike Baird wanted his privatisation plans approved, he had no problem agreeing to the provision of five year job protections at Ausgrid and Endeavour Energy,” Mr Butler said.

“Yet a year on, and while Ausgrid is still in public ownership, we have already got management indicating they plan to exploit a loophole that they hope will allow unfettered cuts to jobs.

“The Baird Government needs to show good faith and ensure the job protections, which were negotiated by Rev. Nile as a key component of the privatisation going ahead, are in fact enforced.

“We welcome Rev. Nile’s proposed solutions, with the combination of a legislative amendment along with a strongly worded clause in the sale contract ensuring certainty for thousands of NSW power workers and the communities they serve.”

Mr Butler said Ausgrid had informed the union that it did not believe the job guarantees would be binding if it could succeed in having the Fair Work Commission agree to the introduction of forced redundancy, possibly through the termination of their current workplace agreement.

“This runs completely contrary to the intention of the NSW Parliament, which voted to support an amendment to legislation that unequivocally stated: ‘there are to be no forced redundancies of continuing employees during the employment guarantee period’,” he said.

Protesters clad in asbestos equipment demand largest NSW power company remove deadly product

Paul Lister - Friday, July 22, 2016

Dozens of protesters wearing protective asbestos equipment will this morning target the head office of the nation’s largest electricity distributor, Ausgrid, to demand immediate action to safely remove the deadly substance from across the power network.

The Electrical Trades Union wrote to the company this week demanding action after it was revealed that efforts to remove asbestos — including in its most dangerous friable state — had stalled, leaving workers and community members at risk.

The union said documents obtained through freedom of information showed at least 29 current and former Ausgrid employees had been diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases — including asbestosis, mesothelioma, and lung cancer — between 2002 and 2012.

ETU organiser Mark Buttigieg said that with the imminent sale of the company, workers feared the NSW Government was trying to pass the buck, leaving a future owner to deal with the problem.

Protesters in asbestos suits demand removal of deadly substance
Where: outside Ausgrid head office, 570 George Street, Sydney
When: 11.30am TODAY — Friday 22 July, 2016

In 2013, Ausgrid management agreed to a series of remediation actions, including the immediate removal of friable asbestos from 10 substations, an audit of all asbestos-containing material in substations in the Sydney CBD, the provision of extra resources for asbestos removal, and the development of programs to remove and remediate fire doors and other components containing asbestos at substations and in other facilities.

The union this week wrote to Ausgrid chief operating officer Trevor Armstrong to highlight concerns that management had breached this agreement, with asbestos products remaining in substations throughout the CBD and serious cuts to the resources allocated to the issue — including to the company’s Asbestos Management Unit.

“Huge amounts of asbestos remain across the electricity network, from substations in the city to transformers in suburban streets,” Mr Buttigieg said.

“Most concerning is the fact that much of this asbestos is friable, which means the individual fibres are loose and — when disturbed — can easily be inhaled.

“This is the most dangerous form of asbestos, with even the smallest number of asbestos fibres capable of causing debilitating and even deadly diseases.

“We are already seeing two people die every year as a direct result of asbestos related diseases that they contracted while working on the NSW electricity network.”

Mr Buttigieg said Ausgrid appeared to be in breach of commitments made in 2013 that were meant to see a substantial increase in the resources put into identifying and removing asbestos.

The same agreement required the company to implement a process where workers could identify and record the presence and condition of asbestos in customer meter boards, which has also not occurred.

“Asbestos in the power network isn’t just hidden away in big substations, it is found in the meter box on thousands of homes, in transformers on suburban streets, and throughout the electricity infrastructure in Sydney’s central business district,” Mr Buttigieg said.

“The longer it remains there, particularly as it deteriorates over time and releases airborne fibres, the greater the risk that is posed to electricity workers and the general public.

“Rather than pass the buck to a future owner and hope that they will do the right thing, the NSW Government and Ausgrid management need to act now to remove this deadly substance.”

Unsustainable NSW Budget propped up by one-off power privatisation windfall

Paul Lister - Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The NSW Government has handed down an unsustainable Budget reliant on volatile income streams that will undermine the State’s economic position in the medium to long-term, the Electrical Trades Union has warned.

NSW Treasurer Gladys Berejiklian has relied on one-off cash injections from electricity network privatisation and a stream of volatile stamp duty income from an unprecedented housing bubble to deliver a modest budget surplus, rather than secure sustainable long term income sources.

The union said that without the sale of electricity transmission company TransGrid, the Budget would have been in deficit to the tune of $7 billion, while Treasury will miss out on hundreds of millions of dollars in future tax and dividends the company previously generated.

“Prior to the 2015 election, our union warned people about the negative fiscal impact caused by privatising income generating assets,” ETU secretary Steve Butler said.

“It was a concern that was shared by many others in the community, including merchant bank UBS that issued a warning that privatising the state’s electricity networks would be bad for the state budget in the medium to long term.

“Today’s budget confirms these fears, with the one off cash injection from the sale of TransGrid propping up otherwise ailing state finances.

“If you remove the one-off sugar hit from the privatisation of the electricity transmission network, todays budget tells a very different story: one of revenue short-falls, deficit and poor economic management.

“The NSW Liberals and Nationals are relying on voodoo economics to hide their ongoing failure to act on creating sustainable long term revenue streams to fund our state’s future needs.”

The ETU challenged both the NSW Government and Opposition to rule out further privatisation of the remaining publicly owned electricity assets.

“The government and opposition cannot rely on unsustainable one off cash grabs in the future delivered through the privatisation of essential services.”

“Today’s budget is a clear example that privatising income generating assets for a one-off cash injection is not the silver bullet to solving the state's long term infrastructure and financial challenges,” Mr Butler said.

“We are demanding the Premier and NSW Opposition Leader rule out further privatisation of the remaining publicly owned electricity networks, including regional electricity provider Essential Energy and the remaining 50 per cent of Ausgrid and Endeavour Energy.

“It is disappointing to see that we were right when we said privatisation was bad economic policy, and it is now up to the NSW Government to correct its mistake by halting the sale of Ausgrid and Endeavour Energy and ruling out any further privatisation of the remaining publicly owned electricity assets.”

Ausgrid bidders must commit to safe removal of asbestos from electrical infrastructure

Paul Lister - Friday, April 15, 2016

Bidders for the publicly-owned electricity distributor Ausgrid are being urged to commit to the complete removal and remediation of deadly asbestos following revelations it was illegally imported and installed in more than 50 substations across Sydney, the Central Coast and Hunter.

Despite being banned from importation or use, between 2007 and 2014 almost a thousands switchgear units containing asbestos were installed in more than 50 substations, including those housed in Royal North Shore Hospital and The Star casino.

The Electrical Trades Union said that while a very small number of substations have been fully remediated, most simply had the asbestos sealed in place because the company wanted to avoid costly cleanups that would require disruptions to electricity services.

ETU NSW secretary Steve Butler said the union was seeking a commitment for a full cleanup of asbestos hazards from the two bidders seeking to buy a majority of the company, Chinese government-owned State Grid Corp and Cheung Kong Infrastructure, owned by Asia’s richest man Li Ka-shing.

“The union is demanding that any purchaser of Ausgrid commit to not only safely remove and remediate this newly installed asbestos, but also to the complete removal of asbestos throughout the network,” Mr Butler said.

“We saw during the roll-out of the National Broadband Network the potential risks for workers and the community that are posed by asbestos remaining in public infrastructure, and we want potential buyers to do what the NSW Government has failed to do — completely remove it from the Ausgrid network.”

Mr Butler said the union was prepared and ready to impose safety bans and carry out other actions to see that the future safety of workers and the public was protected.

“Despite asbestos being knowingly — and unknowingly — used for decades at Ausgrid, not all of the locations of this deadly fibre are known,” he said.

“From what we do know, the ETU estimates the total bill to safely remove all asbestos could run to $2 billion.

“We need to ensure that bidders have committed to the full remediation of the network — and factored those costs into their budget — before the NSW Government hands over control of the poles and wires.”

The union said the revelation that new asbestos was able to slip through Australia’s import bans, and be installed over a period of seven years, was particularly concerning.

“This freshly-imported asbestos poses a far greater risk to workers, because no one expects it to be contained in new equipment,” Mr Butler said.

“Because workers assume new products are asbestos free, they often don't take the same safety precautions that would be used for older equipment.”

A full list of substation locations, and a link to photos and footage of the equipment can be found below.

Click here to view mobile phone footage and photographs of the Tamco Switchgear equipment inside an Ausgrid substation.

Full list of substations were asbestos-containing switchboards were installed between 2007 and 2014:

Newcastle / Hunter:
Aberdeen, Adamstown, Brandy Hill, Broadmeadow, Charlestown, Croudace Bay, Jesmond, Kurri, Maitland, Mayfield West, Medowie, Morisset, Muswellbrook, Rathmines, Raymond Terrace, Rothbury, Scone, Tanilba Bay, Tomago, Tomaree

Central Coast:
Avoca, Empire Bay, Lake Munmorah, Long Jetty, Berkeley Vale, Wamberal

Sydney:
Bankstown, Balgowlah North, Berowra, Camperdown, Croydon, Engadine, Epping, Galston, Gwawley Bay, Hurstville North, Kingsford, Kogarah, Leichhardt, Lindfield, Macquarie Park, Mona Vale, Mortdale, North Sydney (Bradfield Park and North Pylon), Port Botany, Potts Hill, Pyrmont (Sydney Casino), Rose Bay, Sans Souci, St Leonards (Royal North Shore Hospital), Top Ryde, Turramurra, Waverley


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