ETU Media Releases

ETU Media Releases

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ETU to call on Coroner and Keelty to examine role of energy regulator funding cuts in Tathra fires

Paul Lister - Friday, March 23, 2018

The Electrical Trades Union (ETU) will write to both the NSW Coroner and Mick Keelty, charged with investigating the Tathra fires, asking both to consider the role of the Australian Energy regulator (AER) in forcing maintenance cuts on power companies.

An investigation by Rural Fire Service (RFS) specialist investigators reported late yesterday that electricity network assets are likely to have played a role in starting the Tathra fire, which resulted in more than 60 homes being lost and damage to countless others.

Similar devestating bushfires in the last 10 years in both Victoria and the Blue Mountains were found to have been caused by vegetation coming in to contact with power assets during extreme weather events On both occassions significant class action litigation resulted from families who had lost their homes.

ETU Assistant Secretary Justin Page said today that the role of the Australian Energy Regulator in cutting maintenance funding to power companies was a national disgrace and directly resulted in power companies being unable to adequately manage effective maintenance programs including vegetation near power lines.

“The AER needs to be brought to account as a result of this devestating fire. Tathra is potentially the latest example in a long list of fires caused by cuts to maintenance by power networks.”

“In an era of extreme weather events, this faceless regulator has consciously chosen to ignore the public and community safety implications of its decisions and has chosen to focus solely on economic arguments.”

“This is at least the fourth significant national tragedy that has occured for arguably the same reasons.  This needs to be a part of both upcoming investigations into the Tathra bush fire.”

In 2015 the NSW ETU formally raised concerns with the AER about proposed cuts to vegetation maintenance, citing bushfire risk following expert analysis (copies available). The AER however ignored the ETU’s concerns and proceeded to slash maintenance funding for all NSW power companies.

“Communities have suffered significant loss during events such as the recent Tathra bushfire and network operators have been placed under undue pressure when it comes to maintaining a large network of aging infrastructure.” said Mr Page

In a 2016 media release, then ETU NSW Secretary Steve Butler said about the AER “unsustainably slashing the money spent on maintaining, repairing and operating the network simply leads to inadequate infrastructure that may spark bushfires, fail in periods of extreme weather, or result in a growing number of blackouts and service disruptions.”

READ THE ETU SUBMISSION TO AER FEBRUARY 2015 RAISING CONCERNS ABOUT PUBLIC SAFETY AND BUSHFIRES: p11, THE COST OF SAFETY

Tathra fires: Government and power regulator may have questions to answer on network funding cuts

Paul Lister - Thursday, March 22, 2018

The NSW RFS preliminary investigation into the Tathra bushfires is expected to be released today and if, as anticipated, the NSW Government owned Essential Energy is identified as a possible ignition source the Australian Energy Regulator (AER) and NSW Government will have serious questions to answer following massive power line maintenance funding cuts.

The Electrical Trades Union (ETU) today called on the Australian Energy Regulator and NSW Government to explain massive maintenance funding cuts which the union believes has the potential to impact on public safety across NSW.

“If, as anticipated, the initial report by the RFS finds Essential Energy assets played a part in starting the Tathra fire, the Australian Energy Regulator and the State Government as the owners of Essential Energy have a moral oibligation to explain how their massive maintenance funding cuts may be placing the public at serious risk.” said Justin Page ETU NSW Assistant Secretary.

“The NSW Government has been focused on cutting costs at Essential Energy including slashing maintenance and capital works expenditure while at the same time maximising profit,”

“The NSW Government as owner of this aging and complex network and the Australian Energy Regulator should be focused on safety and reliability ahead of cost cutting which is not currently the case leading to potential impacts on network reliability and public safety.” said Mr Page

“If electricity infrastructure is identified as a possible ignition source we believe the upcoming Keelty Inquiry into the disaster at Tathra must look at these significant and underlying structural issues given their potential to impact on public safety.”

“Our thoughts are with the people of Tathra that have been impacted by this tragic event and we believe they deserve answers if today’s RFS report finds that electricity infrastructure was the ignition source of this fire."

In its own documents Essential Energy admits that it has shifted from an “Asset Maintenance” to an “Asset management” methodology while over the past seven years Essential Energy has sacked 1,700 employees representing almost 40% of its workforce.

Essential Energy has also massively underspent on it’s operating expenditure budget to the tune of $129 million in 217 and they have slashed capital expenditure by 38% since 2012 as a result of the Australian Energy Regulator limiting how much the company can spend.

Conversely, profit, net profit and distributions to the state Government have grown significantly in recent years.

“These numbers paint a compelling picture; the Regulator, the business and the NSW Government have combined to create a situation where the workforce has been cut to the bone and maintenance and safety work which any reasonable people would consider critical has also been cut back.”

Dubbo: Troy Grant must intervene to save jobs and services following revelation of Essential Energy closure plan

Paul Lister - Monday, February 19, 2018

The Electrical Trades Union has called on Dubbo MP Troy Grant to urgently intervene following revelations that Essential Energy plans to close a warehouse that provides materials for maintenance and repairs to the electricity network across a large part of the state.

The Essential Energy warehouse in Hawthorn Street, Dubbo could be closed in as little as four weeks, resulting in six local jobs being lost and requiring electrical equipment to be shipped from either Wagga Wagga or Grafton when needed in an emergency.

The union said the Dubbo warehouse is responsible for providing items to Essential Energy depots across a large part of the state, including: Bathurst, Blayney, Broken Hill, Bourke, Canowindra, Cobar, Condobolin, Coonamble, Cowra, Forbes, Gilgandra, Lake Cargelligo, Molong, Narromine, Nyngan, Oberon, Orange, Tottenham, Walgett, Warren, West Wyalong, Wilcannia, and Young.

ETU assistant secretary Justin Page said that National Party MPs promised to save Essential Energy ahead of the 2015 election, but had repeatedly failed to live up to that commitment.

“Far from saving Essential Energy, National Party MPs across the state have stood by while 2,000 regional jobs were slashed and more than 100 depots and workplaces were closed down,” Mr Page said.

“Dubbo MP Troy Grant and National Party leader John Barilaro need to stand up to their Liberal Party masters in Macquarie Street and tell them that regional NSW will not suffer any further cuts to essential services.

“On average, people in regional NSW are waiting up to three times longer to have their power restored following a blackout, yet the NSW Government’s only response is to allow yet another vital facility to be closed down.”

Mr Page said there was no question regional power users — who already pay much higher prices for electricity — would be left worse off following the closure of the Dubbo warehouse.

“This warehouse is one of only three similar facilities run by Essential Energy, and as well as managing the materials needed for ongoing maintenance and repairs it plays a vital role during emergencies,” he said.

“When bushfires or storms cause widespread damage to the electrical network across large parts of NSW, it is the centrally located Dubbo warehouse that ensures the materials that are needed to get the lights back on are delivered quickly to the areas in need.

“Troy Grant and John Barilaro need to stop the death by a thousand cuts that Essential Energy has been suffering during the past three years and instead ensure that service standards and quality jobs are protected for the sake of everyone living in regional NSW.

“The promise that they would save Essential Energy needs to be turned into genuine actions, which requires the National Party to stand up to the Berejiklian Government, say enough is enough, and demand an end to the closures of facilities and cutting of jobs in regional NSW.”

Ombudsman reveals leap in complaints from NSW consumers as power prices surge and service levels drop

Paul Lister - Thursday, February 15, 2018

Rising power prices and poor service from the privatised electricity sector has resulted in a surge of customer complaints, according to new data from the Energy & Water Ombudsman NSW.

According to the EWON quarterly activity report, in the last three months of 2017 NSW electricity users made a total of 5,283 complaints regarding electricity services, a jump of more than 25 per cent from the 4,100 that were received during the same quarter the year before.

Driving this rise was a 42.7 per cent leap in complaints about high power bills, while total complaints against electricity retailers climbed 28.9 per cent and failings by electricity distributors were up 10.5 per cent.

The Electrical Trades Union said the data highlighted the ongoing failure of the Liberal National Government’s privatisation policies.

“The Liberal and National Parties went to an election promising that consumers would be better off if the State’s electricity sector was privatised,” ETU secretary Dave McKinley said.

“Instead, we’ve seen more than 2000 jobs — many in regional areas — slashed by the new private owners.

“The result of this loss of skilled workers has been a reduction in service standards, less resources for maintenance, and slower response times to major outages and emergencies.

“At the same time power prices have surged, delivering private owners massive profits while consumers are paying much more money for a poorer quality service.”

Mr McKinley said the union was unsurprised by the data, saying it aligned with the experiences in Victoria and South Australia following privatisation of electricity services in those states.

“The fact that complaints have leapt in NSW is no surprise to anyone who has experienced power privatisation in other parts of the country,” he said.

“For all the promises of better services and lower prices, private owners of power assets have shown they are much more interested in increasing profits by slashing jobs and reducing services, rather than maintaining the electricity network as an essential service.

“Unfortunately, we expect the situation will continue to get worse, with these private operators continuing to slash staff, cut costs, and increase prices — all with the blessing of the Australian Energy Regulator.

“The only way to solve the problem of skyrocketing bills and falling service levels is to return the electricity supply chain to public ownership, where reliability and service levels can be prioritised over profits.”

NSW power workers vote overwhelming to take industrial action over stalled negotiations

Paul Lister - Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Thousands of union members employed by the largest electricity distributor in New South Wales have voted overwhelmingly to take part in a range of work stoppages, bans and other industrial action from as soon as next month unless an agreement covering wage increases and career progression opportunities can be reached.

Employees at Ausgrid, which is jointly owned by the NSW Government, Australian Super and IFM Investors, have not received a pay rise since 2014 and have also had to endure surging workload demands as almost 2,000 jobs have been slashed during the same period.

Ausgrid owns and operates the electricity poles and wires that deliver power to more than a million homes and businesses across Sydney, Newcastle, the Central Coast and Hunter.

The protected action ballot, conducted by the Australian Electoral Commission, asked more than 2,800 members of the Electrical Trades Union, United Services Union, Community and Public Sector Union, and Professionals Australia whether they supported taking part in a range of actions.

The AEC found overwhelmingly support for all the proposed actions, with:

  • 93.5 per cent voting in support of taking part in work stoppages of up to 8 hours;
  • 93.3 per cent agreeing to impose up to 30 different work bans, including refusing to do overtime, callouts, refuel vehicles, attend team briefings, or work on the light rail network; and
  • 94 per cent willing to change how they perform their work, including refusing to process deliveries from suppliers or process payments to the company.

This outcome of the vote allows union members at Ausgrid to lawfully commence industrial action within the next month, with delegates of the combined unions to meet on January 31 to determining the timing and format of any stoppages.

Electrical Trades Union organiser Mark Buttigieg said workers had been left with no choice but to consider industrial action by Ausgrid management.

“Our members have endured four years of wage freezes, with no pay increase since 2014,” Mr Buttigieg said.

“During this same time, Ausgrid executives awarded themselves pay increases averaging 5.3 per cent a year, while they also enjoyed average bonuses of more than $50,000 each in 2014, 2015 and 2016.

“Our members work day and night to keep the power on for consumers, so the last thing they want to do is impact the public, but the repeated failure by management to resolve these issues has created a situation where industrial action is the only option left.”

United Services Union energy manager Peter Campise said workers were also concerned by management’s push for a new policy that would severely impact on future career progression.

“Not content to freeze wages for four years, Ausgrid are trying to push through a scheme that would result in new employees receiving lower rates of pay, while at the same time making it much harder for existing staff to receive promotions into more senior roles,” Mr Campise said.

“Our members are simply asking for a fair deal, with a modest pay rise of 3 per cent a year and policies in place that allow people to grow their skills and make their way into more rewarding roles over time.

“Ausgrid workers just want their fair share, particularly as they’ve delivered huge productivity increases in recent years of between 43 and 62 per cent, while the loss of 1,987 jobs in recent years has forced much greater workloads onto those who remain.”

Safety Inspectors shut down $200m Opera House Works

Paul Lister - Wednesday, October 11, 2017

In a very rare move, SafeWork NSW has issued a Prohibition Order, shutting down the $200 million renovation of the Sydney Opera House after electrical workers raised the alarm over deadly asbestos on site.

Scientific testing last Friday confirmed samples taken from work areas at the iconic site contained friable
asbestos, posing a serious health risk and leaving workers with no other option but to walk off the job immediately.

On Monday, the safety regulator issued builder Laing O’Rourke with the order, requiring all work to cease in the ceiling space of the Joan Sutherland Theatre - the Opera House’s second biggest theatre and performance space.

The Electrical Trades Union said 35 electricians employed by electrical contractor Downer have been exposed to loose, cancer-causing asbestos fibres while installing cabling.

“Opera House workers, performers and patrons have been put at serious risk because builder Laing O’Rourke has continually failed to find a solution to this critical safety issue,” ETU secretary Dave McKinley said.

 “This is the second time in two months asbestos concerns have shut down renovations at the Opera House and the ETU is demanding to be involved in approving any asbestos removal or remediation plans.

“The NSW Government owns this building and must step up to ensure the asbestos removal is done properly as part of this major upgrade, particularly given the builder is receiving $200 million taxpayer dollars to carry out the renovations.

 “The ETU is calling for the full removal of asbestos from the Opera House as part of the renovation works to also protect future generations of workers, performers and patrons.”

Asbestos contamination at the Opera House was first identified two months ago, with SafeWork NSW issuing improvement notices to builder Laing O’Rourke, giving the company seven days to eliminate the threat to workers.

Instead of clearing up the dangers, Laing O’Rourke has threatened to take workers to the Fair Work Commission, accusing them of taking unlawful industrial action after they chose to put their safety first and stop work on the site.

 “These workers were faced with putting their jobs and even their lives on the line, knowing they were working on a potentially deadly site,” Mr McKinley said.

 “The ETU will always fight for the safety of workers at the Opera House to ensure their workplace is free of hazardous and deadly asbestos.

“The NSW has an obligation to future generations that sites like the Opera House are cleared of asbestos so that this scourge doesn’t continue for years to come.”

Electricians again walk off $200m Opera House renovation over safety fears followings asbestos tests

Paul Lister - Friday, October 06, 2017

Electrical workers this morning stopped work on the $200 million renovation of the Sydney Opera House, refusing to continue with the installation of cabling through the iconic building after receiving confirmation that potentially-deadly friable asbestos had again been located in work areas.

Scientific testing of samples collected yesterday were this morning confirmed to contain friable asbestos, sparking a meeting of electrical workers where they decided to walk off the job immediately until the serious safety issue was resolved.

The incident is the second time in two months that asbestos concerns have halted renovation works on the iconic building, with the Electrical Trades Union demanding the safety regulator and NSW Government intervene to ensure the issue is resolved.

“This issue was first identified two months ago, with SafeWork NSW giving builder Laing O'Rourke a weak slap on the wrist. The company had seven days to remove the asbestos or eliminate the threat to workers through appropriate safety measures and have clearly failed to do so,” ETU secretary Dave McKinley said.

“Electricians yesterday raised the alarm that they were again being exposed to loose asbestos fibres, which has now been confirmed by scientific testing.

“Two months after this major safety issue was uncovered, and the builder was ordered to rectify it by the safety regulator, we have again seen workers exposed to these carcinogenic fibres.”

Mr McKinley said the union was demanding the NSW Minister for Better Regulation, Matt Keen, immediately launch an investigation as to why SafeWork NSW refuses to impose a prohibition notice on Laing O'Rourke, which would prevent any construction work from taking place in the contaminated areas until the asbestos was isolated and removed by specialist contractors.

“It is completely unacceptable that workers, performers and the general public continue to be exposed to a toxic substance at this iconic building, particularly as the builder is receiving $200 million from taxpayers to carry out the renovations,” he said.

“Electricians have made a decision to put their safety first, despite the fact that Laing O'Rourke previously threatened to have them prosecuted in the Fair Work Commission after accusing them of taking unlawful industrial action when they last stopped work over asbestos concerns.

“It’s pretty clear the system is broken when workers are threatened with legal action for refusing to expose themselves to a deadly substance like asbestos, yet the safety regulator seems unwilling to ensure the builder is abiding by workplace health and safety laws.

“The NSW Government need to get off their backsides, take responsibility for this serious issue, and ensure that all asbestos is removed from the Opera House.”

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.”

Electrical safety issues uncovered on Sydney Metro Northwest after vehicle hits live wiring, blacking out tunnel

Paul Lister - Thursday, August 24, 2017

Workplace safety standards on the NSW Government’s Sydney Metro Northwest rail project have come under fire after an all-terrain Manitou forklift came into contact with live electrical wiring, blacking out the construction site and activating emergency lighting which was reported as inadequate.

Following the incident, a safety inspection by a licenced electrician from the Electrical Trades Union revealed additional breaches of Australian Standards and safety legislation on the project.

The union said the safety issues included three phase electrical wiring that had been wrapped around a water pipe and run through the tunnel without any physical protection in place to prevent vehicles or power tools from coming into contact with it and compromising insulation.

ETU Secretary Dave McKinley said that the most concerning moment of the safety investigation came when management on the project refused to cut power to the cable despite being informed it was not only dangerous, but also illegal.

“We have serious concerns that electrical safety standards are not being met during the construction of the Sydney Metro Northwest, putting workers at risk of injury or death,” Mr McKinley said.

“Days after power was cut to the railway tunnel when a vehicle struck a live power cable, our inspectors found electrical cabling that is breach of relevant electrical standards and safety laws.

“Wrapping a power cable around a water pipe, with nothing to protect it from being impacted by heavy vehicles or workers with power tools, is unacceptable on any building site, yet for some reason it is being done on a massive Government-funded infrastructure project.

“We fear that because so much of the construction is occurring underground and in tunnels, where the public and media can’t see what’s going on, management think they are able to cut corners with safety.”

Mr McKinley said that Safe Work NSW have failed in their obligation to investigate serious and repeated safety breaches on the site and that that NSW regulator needed to act.

“Safe Work NSW are nowhere to be seen on one of NSW largest and most dangerous worksites,” he said.

“I am calling on Safe Work NSW to do their job and enforce workplace safety laws that are in place to protect workers.

“It is simply unacceptable that such a cavalier approach to workplace safety that continues to put lives at risk  is being allowed to occur on a major, state government infrastructure project.”

‘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.”