Jul 2, 2010

DEEWR and its contractors — worst-practice workplace relations in action

The secretary of Julia Gillard's former department has called DEEWR's treatment of IT contractors "unacceptable", writes an anonymous tipster.

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

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5 thoughts on “DEEWR and its contractors — worst-practice workplace relations in action

  1. Nelson

    DEEWR is not unique in treatment of IT contractors, in fact it’s pretty common in corporate sector that renewals/cancellations are left to the last minute. I’ve been in IT for twenty years in NZ, Aust’ and UK, it’s the same in these places; IT contractors know that we’re at the mercy of the headcount limits and budgets of our employers. Contractors are always the first to be booted out when push comes to shove. In most cases we get paid more than the equivalent permanent staff. We can kid ourselves that this is entirely because we’re better professionals however we all tacitly know that part of this payment premium is because we’re more disposable resources. Yeah it’s not very nice to be treated this way and maybe it’s not right but shouldn’t be surprised when it happens.

  2. Delerious

    I’ve been a contractor in the IT industry for nearly 17 years and even tho’ I’m sorry for the contractors at DEEWR they broke the first commandment of being a contractor: Me, Me, Me. There is no We in Me.

    Basically you are contracted to an organisation you aren’t permanent. Your loyalty to the organisation is from the beginning of the contract to the date it ends. If you think it means more then this then become permanent. Its why we get paid more. We take greater risks and can’t claim time for free drinkies on Friday.

    I avoid working for government bodies for extended periods because 1. you are around “permanent” contractors ie people whose skills become questionable the longer they are there and 2. government pay squat and make more demands.

  3. Tom Jones

    Of course the toxic atmosphere in DEEWR is well known among staff and there are far more expendable staff about to see the door. The very low standards of workplace satisfaction can be seen in staff turnover, absenteeism and the low standards set in the annual staff survey which is barely mentioned in the Annual Report.

    Many staff are being victimised and bullied but the department has no bullying policy in place and no methods to deal with managers who stand over staff to meet the performance standards. Internal committees where issues are raised are routinely ignored or promised reports which never appear or are a whitewash.

    The main problems stem from the takeover of the education and childcare departments by the DEWR HR department that introduced Workchoices in that department. The HR department should have been cleaned out root and branch for the way it treated staff in DEWR but it continues with policies that come from the dark ages in the newer DEEWR.

    Lisa Paul has allowed HR practices which only seem to matter when they get media attention. She has ignored or persecuted staff who have tried to point out the many unfair practices which exist in this toxic department as a legacy of Workchoices. The IT crowd are just the latest in a long line of staff who have suffered at the hands of the HR branch whose bosses will almost certainly be rewarded rather than be given the sacking that they deserve for their abysmal treatment of honest workers.

  4. Tom Jones

    Is it worth mentioning that since DEEWR was formed the only training of significance was for senior managers to go on a soirees while all that non SES staff can expect is a telecon explaining new procedures while the IT Contractors have been expected to pick up the pieces? The lack of investment in training reflects very poorly on the department which is encouraging other employers to invest in their staff training programs.

  5. blow me down

    “And for all this, a faceless bureaucrat will probably be rewarded for meeting targets in cost savings.”

    That faceless bureaucrat has indeed been rewarded. She (I’m not talking about Lisa Paul) has the full support of her superiors and sycophants. This became blatantly obvious yesterday when the Deputy Secretary called a meeting of branch managers and directors, and blame was laid wholly at their feet. Faceless Bureaucrat, the woman who royally screwed everything, was lauded. This woman ignored input and advice from her deputies, made unilateral decisions without consultation or communication, demonstrated the most appalling lack of leadership qualities, and is now getting away with blaming it all on those beneath her.

    DEEWR’s website names one the department’s goals as: “To increase workforce participation and promote fair and productive work practices.”

    Perhaps those in the upper echelons of the department should learn to lead by example. Until this happens and those who screwed the pooch are made accountable, nobody with half a brain will ever want to work for DEEWR.

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