ETU Media Releases

The restoration of electricity services to North West communities ravaged by a huge bushfire on Sunday could take a week or more, with local power workers warning that recent cuts to staffing numbers have drastically reduced their ability to replace damaged infrastructure.

The Electrical Trades Union said members at the NSW Government-owned electricity network operator Essential Energy reported that the bushfire that claimed more than 30 homes had also destroyed 280 power poles and damaged hundreds of kilometers of power lines.

ETU deputy secretary Dave McKinley said residents returning to fire ravaged areas around Uarbry, Leadville and Cassilis faced being without electricity for days to come as a reduced number of maintenance crews worked around the clock to restore services.

“This is a massive repair job by any standard, but exhausted power workers have told the union their efforts to restore electricity services to these regional communities has been made substantially harder due to massive staffing cuts implemented by the NSW Government,” Mr McKinley said.

“Essential Energy crews have been sent from as far away as the Riverina and North Coast to assist with this repair work, but even with these additional resources there simply aren’t enough workers on the ground to restore power quickly following a natural disaster of this scale.

“The National Party has been caught with its pants down by this fire which has exposed as false their repeated claims before the 2015 election that they had saved Essential Energy.”

Mr McKinley said major Essential Energy depots in nearby regional centres such as Dubbo, Mudgee, Parkes and Forbes had lost up to a third of their workforce in recent years, while the company had just commenced a further 600 job cuts across the rural and regional power network.

“Since the Liberals and Nationals took power in 2011, we’ve seen the number of front-line electricity workers at Essential Energy slashed,” he said.

“Regional electricity customers pay some of the highest electricity prices in the country, so it shouldn’t be unreasonable for them to expect an appropriate number of workers will be available to restore power following bushfires and other natural disasters.

“Our members are doing their best to get power restored as quickly as possible, but with the scale of the damage — and the number of poles that need replacing — it may take up to a week.”

The union said local Essential Energy workers were upset by the pace of the response, saying they felt let down by the decisions of management and the NSW Government to drastically reduce workforce numbers.

“The distress of many victims of this bushfire has been amplified by delays with power restoration,” Mr McKinley said.

“While this is clearly the fault of Essential Energy management and the NSW Government, who are responsible for slashing regional electricity jobs, that doesn’t make things any easier for front-line workers.

“The union is encouraging Essential Energy management to at least seek to mitigate the problem by calling on the new owners of Ausgrid — which has depots just half an hour away — to send additional resources to assist with restoring power to these regional communities as quickly as possible.”

The National Party is being urged to demand that regional jobs and services at Essential Energy be protected as part of a renegotiated coalition agreement with incoming NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, with the Electrical Trades Union describing Mike Baird’s departure as a unique opportunity to save thousands of quality jobs in the bush.

The call follows Nationals leader and NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro’s statement that the existing agreement between his party and the Liberals was a blank piece of paper, with everything up for debate.

Electrical Trades Union secretary Steve Butler said that while Mr Barilaro’s new found courage opposing forced council amalgamations was a welcome start, the National Party must go further to stand up for the interests of regional communities by protecting regional jobs.

“During the next three years, the NSW Government-owned regional electricity distributor Essential Energy plans to halve its workforce, from 3,200 employees to just 1,600 by 2019,” Mr Butler said.

“This plan will cause untold pain to regional communities as quality jobs are lost, specialist workers are forced to move away with their families, less money is spent with local businesses, and far fewer front-line workers are available to carry out maintenance and emergency response work.

“This is the perfect opportunity for Mr Barilaro to demonstrate the truth to his claims that every policy is up for debate and that the Nationals will no longer ‘accept the crumbs from the Liberal party table’.”

Mr Butler said the coming weeks provided an unprecedented opportunity, with a new Premier, a cabinet reshuffle, and a renewal of the coalition agreement between the Liberal and National parties.

“Since coming to power in 2011, the Nationals have overseen the loss of 1,400 regional jobs at Essential Energy,” Mr Butler said.

“Now they are pushing ahead with plans to make a further 1,600 regional workers redundant by 2019.

“Essential Energy remains 100 per cent owned and controlled by the NSW Government, meaning Mr Barilaro can and should demand the protection of these jobs as a condition of the National Party’s ongoing support.

“Saving these jobs would provide clear evidence that the National Party has truly learnt from the Orange byelection and will no longer rubber-stamp decisions in Macquarie Street that run counter to the interests of regional workers, their families, and broader communities.

“The alternative — continuing to support this ideological push to outsource jobs — would expose Mr Barilaro and his National Party colleagues as being unwilling or unable to adequately represent the interests of regional NSW in the parliament.”

Analysis of the annual reports of publicly-owned regional electricity distributor Essential Energy has revealed the NSW Government took $28.1 million in dividend payments from the company during the same period management was arguing the company needed to slash 600 jobs to remain profitable.

Essential Energy management told the Fair Work Commission it required permission to forcibly axe 600 jobs to remain profitable, yet the company’s financial reports reveal an operating loss of $1.2 million was only recorded after accounting for the $28.1 million dividend payments to the NSW Government.

The documents also show a dividend payment of $58.7 million was provided to the NSW Government during the previous 2014-15 financial year.

Senior managers enjoyed substantial pay rises over the past year while frontline workers have faced an uncertain future, with acting Chief Executive Officer Gary Humphreys having his total remuneration jump 40.3 per cent to $764,353 in the 2015-16 financial year.

Meanwhile, head of Customer and Corporate Services Caroline Hungerford pocketed a 7.8 per cent pay rise to $337,706, the salary for the Chief Financial Officer position jump by 5.7 per cent to $357,876, and Safety, HR and Environment chief David Nardi took away a 4.4 per cent pay rise, with a package of $331,250.

The Electrical Trades Union, which carried out the analysis, said the company’s annual reports also confirmed that since the Liberal National Coalition came to power in 2011, job numbers at the state’s largest regional employer had been reduced from 4600 to 3200, while the number of Essential Energy locations had been cut by nearly a third, from 147 in 2011 to 100 in 2016 (see table over page).

“Essential Energy management stood before the Fair Work Commission and argued that to remain profitable the company needed to slash up to 1,600 regional jobs,” ETU deputy secretary Dave McKinley

“What they didn’t tell the industrial umpire, or the people of regional NSW, was that this was only the case because the NSW Government has been continuing to demand multi-million dollar dividends.

“Had this dividend not been paid, Essential Energy would have produced a $27 million profit last financial year — enough to fund the jobs of about half of those who are now being axed.

“The year before, that figure was more than double that amount, with the dividend payment enough to cover the wages of every single regional worker who is now being forced out the door.”

The company’s annual report concluded that financial outcomes had actually been better than expected, stating that this was the result of: “lower than budgeted (number of) employee’s during the year.”

“The fat of the matter is that these regional jobs could be saved by the NSW Government, but their addiction to dividends from this publicly owned utility is preventing that from happening,” Mr McKinley said.

“If the NSW Government returned these dividend payments, the company would be able to save hundreds of regional jobs.”

Publicly owned electricity distributor Essential Energy has today been granted permission to slash 600 regional jobs across NSW following a decision of the full bench of the Fair Work Commission, with forced redundancies expected to commence within weeks.

The decision also removed any restriction of forced job cuts from 1 July 2018, allowing an unlimited number of highly-skilled power workers from rural and regional communities across the state to be axed.

The written decision also revealed that Essential Energy management intends to use outsourcing to carry out further cuts, with the company’s eventual target seeing in one in every two jobs go, allowing the size of their workforce to be halved to 1,600 employees by the 2019 financial year.

The FWC rejected a submission from power unions that no redundancies occur before the Christmas New Year period, allowing Essential Energy to move on redundancies within weeks.

The decision will permit NSW Government-owned electricity distributor Essential Energy to:
- make up to 600 staff forcibly redundant by 30 June 2018;
- have an unlimited number of additional workers leave the company during the same time period if they accept a voluntary redundancies;
- make an unlimited number of staff forcibly redundant from 1 July 2018; and
- replace regional employees with outsourced contractors.

The FWC made the decision despite admitting that its ruling could be expected to have a substantial impact on workers and regional communities, with the written determination stating:

“In the case of Essential Energy, the effects are magnified because of the specialist skills of many of the employees involved, the location of Essential Energy’s depots in country towns scattered throughout NSW, and the scale of redundancies that have already occurred and will likely occur in the future...

“Employees located in country towns will find it difficult to obtain alternative work, either of a comparable standard or at all, in their current locations… Job opportunities are generally limited, and jobs involving the specialist skills of electrical tradespersons formerly employed by Essential Energy are virtually non-existent...

“It is likely that many redundant employees will have to relocate themselves and their families in order to obtain alternative employment. This will necessarily have direct personal effects on employees and their family members in having to change their house, community and school. It may also have effects on smaller towns in terms of the loss of income able to be spent locally and a possible diminution in community involvement.”

The Electrical Trades Union and United Services Union, which together represent the majority of Essential Energy workers, slammed the decision and urged the NSW Government to intervene.

ETU deputy secretary Dave McKinley said his union had made multiple attempt to contact new National Party leader John Barilaro, by phone, email and SMS, but so far had received no response.

“This is the time for the National Party to finally stand up for regional NSW and to demand an end to the wholesale axing of quality jobs by publicly-owned organisations across the state,” he said.

“Today’s decision means that, within the next two years, up to 1,600 highly-skilled power workers who live and work in regional NSW could be without a job.

“The economic and social impact of such huge job cuts — which will tear hundreds of millions of dollars out of the economies of rural communities — will be untold human suffering in the communities the National Party claims to represent.

“This is our challenge for John Barilaro: show that the National Party has learnt from the Orange byelection, stop towing the Baird Government’s line, and demand that this publicly-owned company not press ahead with these wholesale job cuts.”

ETU Organiser Justin Page said the ETU were also seeking an assistance package from the NSW Government to provide help for any Essential Energy workers that lose their jobs, including with retraining, small business advice, and recognition of skills and training.

“This decision is one of the biggest blows to employment in regional NSW that has ever occurred,” Mr Page said.

“John Barilaro is now facing his first challenge in his new role as National Party leader and NSW Deputy Premier, and that is to stick up for regional workers and communities directly impacted by this decision.

“The NSW Government, as the owner of 100 per cent of Essential Energy, has the power to intervene and save these jobs.

“All that is needed is for John Barilaro and his National Party colleagues to demand that their coalition partners in the NSW Government put the interests of regional communities ahead of their attempts to squeeze profits out of public companies.”

New Nationals leader John Barilaro will today face his first opportunity to defend regional jobs and services, with the full bench of the Fair Work Commission handing down a long-awaited decision that may allow the publicly-owned electricity distributor to make hundreds of workers forcibly redundant.

Mr Barilaro’s predecessor Troy Grant repeatedly failed to intervene after the NSW Government-owned company took the unprecedented step of applying to unilaterally terminate an existing workplace agreement, which would allow it to remove existing job protections, as well as cutting pay and conditions.

The Electrical Trades Union said the former leadership of the National Party had repeatedly failed to stand up to their Liberal masters in Macquarie Street, with cuts to jobs and services contributing to the shock defeat of the party in the Orange byelection.

The union highlighted written media releases from Mr Barilaro ahead of the 2015 election, saying his new position as party leader and Deputy Premier meant it was time for him to put these pledges into action.

The statements include: “I support lower electricity prices, but I will always lead the charge in protecting local electricity jobs” (9/3/2015), and “a key priority for this government is about creating and securing local jobs” (17/3/2015).

ETU deputy secretary Dave McKinley said the decision, to be handed down at 10.30am in Sydney, was the first test of whether the National Party under the leadership of John Barilaro would fight to protect regional jobs.

“Before the election, John Barilaro talked a good game, making firm promises that he would lead the charge to protect regional jobs,” Mr McKinley said.

“This week, with all the power that comes from being Deputy Premier and leader of the National Party, he has chance to put those words into action.

“If, as feared, the Fair Work Commission opens the floodgates to forced redundancies at Essential Energy, we could see hundreds of highly skilled jobs lost from regional NSW.

“The NSW Government, as the owner of 100 per cent of the company, has the ability to act and save these jobs. All that is missing is the political will.”

Mr McKinley also urged Mr Barilaro to meet with power workers and their unions to discuss the impact of job cuts, outsourcing, reductions to maintenance, and privatisation, all of which were harming the regional communities the National Party claims to represent.

“This is Mr Barilaro’s first chance to show that the National Party has learnt from the Orange byelection result and that they are willing to listen to their constituents and use their power within the NSW Government to defend regional jobs and services,” he said.

“If Mr Barilaro fails this test, delivering more of the same behavior of his predecessor, he simply guarantees the community backlash against the National Party will only grow by the next election.”

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.”

The Electrical Trades Union is demanding senior management at publicly-owned electricity network company Essential Energy be held personally accountable for work practices they oversaw that resulted in the preventable death of 47-year-old father Trevor Tooze in 2013.

The call comes as the company was fined $300,000 over the incident, with the court finding the company placed a desire to maintain electricity supplies ahead of safety when workers were told to operate in close proximity to a live 11,000 volt cable, resulting in the preventable death.

An experienced electrical worker, Mr Tooze was one of six workers replacing several kilometres of powerlines on Monday 2 September 2013 along Seal Rocks Road, near Bulahdelah on the NSW mid-North Coast.

At approximately 10.25am, while receiving a copper cable that was being lowered to the ground, Mr Tooze was electrocuted when the cable came into contact with the operational high voltage line.

His colleagues performed CPR, but due to the remoteness of the worksite it took more than half an hour for help to arrive. He was pronounced dead at the scene by paramedics.

“Trevor’s family, his workmates, and the community deserve to know which senior executive was responsible for prioritising the electricity supply over workers lives on that tragic day,” ETU deputy secretary Dave McKinley said.

“While the $300,000 fine is a welcome recognition that Essential Energy did the wrong thing, it is consumers who will end up paying it, so it provides little deterrent for unsafe practices.

“We believe the senior executives who were responsible for this policy, who knowingly placed workers in danger for the sake of maintaining electricity services, must be held personally responsible.

“Heads should roll, including Deputy Chief Executive Officer Gary Humphreys who held overall responsibility at the time, to send a message that the community has zero tolerance for the lives of working people being put at risk for the sake of convenience or profits.”

Mr McKinley said Mr Tooze’s death had resulted in changes at the company, including the rollout of almost 200 portable defibrillators following a 12-month union campaign.

“A portable defibrillator would have allowed Trevor to receive treatment within minutes, which would have increased his chances of survival,” he said.

“The ETU campaigned for this change in the hope that it could prevent similar tragedies in future, and there are now defibrillators taken on the road by crews across rural and regional NSW as they carry out maintenance and repair work on the electricity poles and wires.”

Click here to read the SafeWork NSW media release. 

Click here to read a copy of the Essential Energy incident report.

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.”

Essential Energy management have suffered a crushing defeat after their proposed workplace agreement, which would have resulted in cuts to real wages and massive regional job losses, was overwhelmingly rejected by 87 per cent of their workforce.

The online ballot, initiated by management and carried out by Elections Australia, saw 2697 eligible Essential Energy employees vote, with 87 per cent — or 2347 workers — rejecting the proposal. Just 350 staff, or less than 13 per cent, were in support of the agreement.

The Electrical Trades Union, United Services Union, and Professional Australia, which represent Essential Energy employees, had urged members to vote against the management agreement, warning that it would lead to hundreds of forced job cuts across regional NSW and prevent the independent umpire from deciding the outcome.

After 18-months of failed negotiations, and a steadfast refusal by the company to allow the industrial umpire to intervene, Essential Energy management have now run out of alternatives and will be forced to accept the arbitrated decision of the Fair Work Commission.

Essential Energy’s proposed agreement sought to impose hundreds of forced redundancies, financial penalties for staff who refused to take voluntary redundancies, and bans on redundant employees applying for other jobs with the company for two years. It also provided just a single, 2.5 per cent pay increase, while cutting other conditions and entitlements.

“This week, Essential Energy employees have sent an unprecedented message,” ETU secretary Steve Butler said.

“They will not accept massive regional job cuts, they will not accept cuts to their real wages, and they will certainly not accept the bullying behaviour of a management team who have simply refused to consider the needs of the workforce during 18 months of negotiations.

“This vote leaves the company with no choice but to finally accept the decision of the independent industrial umpire, which will hear the details of our arguments and impose a binding outcome that will provide certainty for Essential Energy workers and the communities they serve.”

USU general secretary Graeme Kelly said the vote showed the resolve of Essential Energy workers had only grown in the face of unprecedented attacks on their jobs and employment conditions.

“For 18 months, Essential Energy management have been using every avenue available to them to try to force through a new workplace agreement that would allow them to forcibly cut hundreds of regional jobs and leave remaining staff financially worse off,” Mr Kelly said.

“There is no doubt in our minds that this unprecedented anti-worker agenda was being driven by the Baird Government — which is the only explanation for the total silence of local Liberal and National Party MPs about the threat of massive job cuts in their local communities.

“The power has now been taken out of management’s hands, with the independent industrial umpire finally able to hear all sides of the argument and make a final decision to bring this dispute to an end.”

Workers at Essential Energy have been urged to “vote no” in a ballot for a new workplace agreement, with unions accusing management at the NSW Government-owned electricity distributor of trying to avoid the matter being determined by the independent industrial umpire.
 
Unions have warned that the management-initiated ballot, if successful, would result in a cut to real wages and massive regional job losses. The electronic voting process commences from tomorrow, Saturday 4 June, and closes at 5pm on Thursday 9 June.
 
The management proposal offers a single 2.5 per cent pay increase over three years in return for workers agreeing to allow potentially unlimited forced redundancies, along with cuts to employment conditions, reduced consultation over future changes, and cuts to take home pay.
 
The Electrical Trades Union, United Services Union and Professional Australia, which represent Essential Energy employees, said the ballot was a last ditch effort by management to avoid having the Fair Work Commission determine the outcome of the long running dispute.
 
“Last week, the Fair Work Commission triggered a 21-day bargaining period that will be followed by automatic arbitration if no agreement is reached between the company and its employees,” ETU secretary Steve Butler.
 
“That decision was welcomed by unions as it potentially takes the decision making process out of management’s hands, allowing for independent assessment of the case by the industrial umpire which would then hand down a binding decision.
 
“After refusing to budge for 18 months, management has decided to have one final crack at getting their anti-worker agenda through in the form of this management initiated ballot.”
 
USU general secretary Graeme Kelly said power industry unions were urging workers to make sure they vote over the coming days, ensuring a clear rejection of this attempt to cut jobs and employment conditions.
 
“We are urging our members to make sure that they vote, that they vote no, and that they encourage their colleagues to do the same,” Mr Kelly said.
 
“We believe it is in the interest of Essential Energy workers to overwhelmingly reject this offer and instead allow the independent umpire to decide the outcome through arbitration.
 
“In 18 months of negotiations, Essential Energy management have refused to budge on their determination to slash hundreds of regional jobs and cut conditions that were fought for and won by previous generations.
 
“Essential Energy management, at the bidding of their masters in the Baird Government, continue to push for a workplace arrangement that will allow them to slash regional jobs and cut the quality of services available to power consumers.”
 
Background information regarding Essential Energy ballot:
 
Essential Energy management have initiated a ballot on a proposed workplace agreement which is opposed by power industry unions.
 
The ballot, which runs from Saturday 4 June until Thursday 9 June, is being run by Elections Australia Pty Ltd. Essential Energy employees will be emailed a code which they can then use to vote at www.myvote.com.au.
 
Changes to existing employment conditions in the proposed management agreement include:

  • Implementation of forced redundancies, with 250 people per year to be forcibly sacked on top of any voluntary redundancies. From 1 July 2018 there would be no cap on the number of forced redundancies;
  • Financial penalties for workers who are made forcibly redundant after refusing to accept a voluntary redundancy. Additional severance and early acceptance payments of up to 28 weeks pay available to workers who elect to take an early voluntary redundancy offer. If an employee does not choose to accept the early voluntary redundancy offer, they enter a 26-week retention period after which their employment is terminated and a lower severance payment provided;
  • Any employee who is made redundant is banned from being re-employed in an alternate position at the company for a period of 2 years;
  • The three year agreement only provides workers with a single, 2.5 per cent pay increase. This is less than inflation and amounts to a cut in real wages;
  • Cuts to conditions and entitlements will substantially reduce the take-home pay. Over the life of the agreement, many workers will miss out on thousands of dollars in entitlements;
  • Changes to consultation clauses will allow the company to proceed with major changes after a 28 day process. These major changes — such as replacing employees with contractors — are able to proceed after that four-week period regardless of the views of employees;
  • Removal of the “status quo” provision which currently ensures existing arrangements are maintained while a dispute is resolved; and
  • Minimum payment for being recalled to work outside of rostered hours, such as during storms or other major outages, halved from four hours to two hours.