The Australian Bureau of Statistics management is engaging in a “brutal” redundancy process as part of its current cost-cutting drive, with long-serving employees given five minute’s notice to leave, inconsistent advice and potential breaches of the Workplace Relations Act.

Yesterday, the Community and Public Sector Union drew attention to the sackings at the ABS, including the failure by ABS management to advise the union of large numbers of redundancies. Under the Workplace Relations Act, that is grounds for intervention by the Industrial Relations Commission. The union has been handling requests for assistance from tearful employees told they did not fit “the new ABS” or were excess, some after twenty years’ service. In some cases, staff were told they were underperforming, but not given the assessment on which that claim was based.

The ABS flagged a range of cost cuts before last year’s budget as a consequence of the additional efficiency dividend imposed by the new Government, which meant the ABS lost around $20m from its budget, with cuts aimed at demographic and social statistics. The cuts cost around 160 jobs in a 2,700-strong workforce.

In March this year, management advised staff in an internal email that they were repeating the dose, and had a goal of “reducing managerial positions by around 90 in total Australia wide with a similar reduction in the number of staff at other levels.”

Sources say the ABS has insufficient funding to pay for that level of redundancies (each employee would be entitled to a redundancy payout based on years of service, as well as their current entitlements), and can only afford 100 redundancies, with the rest to be obtained by natural attrition.

As the CPSU notes, ABS has also been disturbingly inconsistent in its advice to employees, with some staff offered voluntary redundancies or redeployment, and others simply told they were “excess” and given five minutes to clear their desks before being sent home to “consider their options”.

The financial pressure on the ABS comes despite the Government promising to lift funding in the Budget. As part of the deal to pass the Government’s February stimulus package, the Treasurer agreed to a request from the Australian Greens for additional funding for the Bureau. ”

The Government indicates its intention to increase funding for the Australian Bureau of Statistics in the forthcoming Budget,” Swan wrote to Senator Bob Brown, although it isn’t clear if this is funding beyond the rise in the ABS 2009-10 allocation that would occur in nominal terms anyway.

The cuts will clearly have an impact on the quality and breadth of ABS data, at a time when economic data is more critical than ever. In November, the ABS reversed a cut to its retail sales data sample size that had raised questions about the volatility of a critical and timely metric of economic performance.

The loss of 180 senior staff will lead to more serious impacts on data that is more than ever a critical input to major economic decisions.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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