Simon Crean, as new Workplace Relations Minister, might like to be made aware of a perfect example of everything that can be wrong with workplace management. It’s close to his own workplace at Parliament House. In fact, it’s walking distance from Canberra Airport, so there’s really no excuse.

He might even recognise the organisation’s name as he walks up to the doors. The Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR).

In a neutral modern office building in what is quaintly called Brindabella Business Park, there is blood, figuratively at least, on the carpets. Dozens of long-serving contract staff, encouraged over months to believe their contracts would be renewed, have found out at the very last minute that the opposite is the case.

Government departments have always used a mix of permanent and contract staff, particularly in IT where skills can be brought in as needed. In many cases contractors become key elements of a team, and there is nothing wrong with that. Contracts typically fall due at the end of a financial year.

Most of these contract staff are young, and many have young families. Working families, as Julia Gillard and Simon Crean might call them.

Contractors in the Application Systems Group at DEEWR — people responsible for building and maintaining computer systems that enable the delivery of dozens of the department’s programs — made their renewal applications, as required, in early May. In the weeks that followed, most of them were encouraged, formally and informally, to consider themselves safe for renewal. By early June, many were a bit concerned as new contracts had not been offered, but still trusted the department to follow through. Some turned down offers from other employers. Some didn’t apply elsewhere because they had no reason to consider their livelihoods at risk.

By the last full week in June, the atmosphere had changed markedly. Rumour and counter-rumour filled the floor. Managers were cagey. No one in authority was saying anything. Productivity slumped as everyone was only talking about one thing.

On about the 25th June, the first new contract offers started to trickle through. Many offers came with “take it or leave it” pay cuts. Many received no offer. And that was their notification of redundancy. No email telling them. No talk from a manager. Just the absence of an offer. And all in the last days of June, giving them no time to find another job to keep the mortgage repayments or the household budget ticking over.

Some program delivery teams have been slashed. Entire multimillion, even multibillion dollar programs now have hardly any IT staff left to maintain them, let alone design and develop policy-related changes.

An inescapable irony is that these programs are largely targeted to supporting young and disadvantaged job seekers and trainees, and they must now be considered under threat.

The atmosphere in the building is toxic. There is open hostility among management. Anyone who has accepted a contract extension will be looking for work immediately. The reputation of DEEWR for fair dealing has been destroyed. Trust has been destroyed. Word gets around.

And for all this, a faceless bureaucrat will probably be rewarded for meeting targets in cost savings. Never mind natural justice, never mind security for program delivery, just make the numbers.

There’s a story going around that centres on a job advertisement a little while ago for a position in IT in Canberra. As one of its selling points, the agency made sure people knew that “this job is NOT at DEEWR”.

So, Simon, get stuck in and fix workplace relations in Australia, starting right at home.

Meanwhile Bernard Keane writes:

Yesterday DEEWR secretary Lisa Paul issued the following all-staff email:

Secretary’s Message on IT contractors

Many of you would be aware of today’s media reports around the non-renewal of a number of IT contractors within DEEWR. I would like to take this opportunity to explain the facts and to reassure all staff that we are taking appropriate action to address what has been unacceptably short notice for some of the individuals concerned.

I first want to apologise to those individuals and their families who have been affected by the lack of notice.

There are some contractors who have not been re-engaged through their existing labour hire vendors. This is because the vendors in question were not successful in their proposals to renew their DEEWR contracts from today (1 July).

While the reduction in IT contractors has been planned and communicated for at least 12 months, it has come to my attention that particular individuals were not advised that their vendor had been unsuccessful. This meant they were not given any warning that they would not be re-engaged to work at DEEWR through their existing vendors upon expiry of their contracts.

Although DEEWR has met all its contractual obligations under the circumstances, the reality is that we have not treated these individuals at all well in the process.

From today we will be contacting each of the contractors affected, to discuss their particular circumstances and where appropriate they will be offered re-employment with DEEWR.

Lisa Paul PSM

Peter Fray

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