Australia’s Workplace Ombudsman has launched an investigation into allegations by unions that Telstra has been pressuring employees on existing AWAs to sign new agreements with the maximum five-year term.
The Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) has accused Telstra of trying to rush the agreements through the system before the new government’s “Transition Bill” comes into effect, which will prevent any new AWAs being made. According to a CPSU spokesman, the reports of duress also come just months before the commencement of negotiations for a new collective enterprise agreement for Telstra employees, which are set to begin in March next year.
The CPSU spokesman said that Telstra has been giving employees inaccurate and incomplete comparisons between what they would stand to get under an AWA and a collective agreement.
“There is a climate of fear and people feel as though they’re being strong-armed into locking into these five-year contracts … People are being told that if they don’t sign AWAs they could potentially lose their redundancy entitlements,” the CPSU spokesman said.
“We’ve [also] had reports of staff being told that their salary will be reduced if they choose to be covered by the collective agreement, which we think is obviously untrue … In some cases we’ve heard reports that [Telstra has] offered some forms, which were a waiver for the seven-day cooling-off period.
”Essentially what we’ve saying is that [employees are] not given a complete picture of what the transition arrangements would be in terms of moving from an AWA onto a collective agreement” he said.
According to the CPSU spokesman, one of the key concerns with Telstra’s AWAs is that a part of employees’ base salaries are put at risk by being made subject to various performance indicators.
“We’re not opposed to a culture that encourages high performance, but essentially we think Telstra is engaging in this at the moment because they feel as though they will be able to lock people in for five years on substandard pay and conditions. We’re saying to Telstra that they need to respect the wishes of employees and wait and see what happens [with the collective enterprise agreement negotiations]. Let people have a real choice because at the moment there isn’t a real choice.” he said.
Michael Campbell, executive director of external affairs for the Workplace Ombudsman, told Lawyers Weekly that the agency hopes that this investigation will serve as a reminder to employers that although it is certainly still legal to enter into new AWAs, employers need to ensure that they comply with the laws with respect to how they’re offered.
“We wouldn’t intend to discourage employers from legally entering AWAs but we stand by our commitment that if we identify duress we’re going to take serious action” he said.
Telstra’s group general counsel, Will Irving, has confirmed that staff are being offered the opportunity to sign a new agreement, but he denied that employees have been subject to any duress.
“We welcome their investigation, [but] we have not been rushing people onto AWAs. We have a significant number of staff on AWAs and they’ve been given a choice — it’s a free choice. They can decide to take up the offer of an AWA which will effectively extend its term beyond the change to the law and that’s entirely consistent with the government’s policy … but it’s a free choice. We’re not coercing people into signing AWAs.” he said.
Despite speculation that there might be a widespread problem with employers trying to rush agreements through the system, the CPSU spokesman said that they have not seen evidence of this to date.
“I think most employers have listened to the judgement that the Australian people handed down a fortnight ago and realised that Australia’s previous WorkChoices regime and AWAs were not something that they were in favour of … We certainly feel that Telstra should listen to what the Australian people have said,” he said.