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Workers Struggle Against Impact of Privatisation and Outsourcing On Many Fronts

Written by: Ned K. on 18 September 2021


Government privatisation and outsourcing of services has been a feature of capitalism in Australia for many decades affecting public transport, water utilities, public health, aged care, disabilities and education and many more sectors. For example, road traffic controlling where road works are undertaken, used to be performed by workers directly employed by state or federal governments. 

In many public hospitals most of the support services have been contracted out to multinational companies like Serco, ISS, Spotless or Compass.

In public schools, maintenance and school cleaning has been contracted out for years to both large companies like Spotless as well as smaller locally based companies.

A common outcome of this outsourcing is more insecure work, higher workloads, lower wages and lower quality of service to the people who use the services.

The practice of privatisation and outsourcing over the decades has become so entrenched that governments have become almost servants of the capitalists delivering the service rather than delivering all the assurances the people were given that services would improve, and governments would ensure contractors did not put profits before workers' working conditions and service to the people.

In the last decade particularly there has been a fightback by workers to prevent further privatization and outsourcing and also campaigns to reverse privatisation and outsourcing.

Unions and their members have often supported election of a Labor Federal, State or Territory Governments with high hopes that if elected they would reverse privatisation or at least ensure that workers’ wages and conditions would be the same as if directly employed.

Workers have had some success in their struggles. For example, in the ACT several years ago, the Government agreed to take school cleaning back in house with improved wages and conditions as a consequence. In WA and Queensland, directly employed school cleaners have successfully resisted attempts by both Liberal and Labor Governments to outsource cleaning to private for-profit contractors.

In South Australia, public hospital directly employed support services workers won an Enterprise Agreement which included a clause that at change, renewal or extension of commercial contracts with companies where services had been already contracted out twenty years ago, the workers had to be paid the same wages as directly employed public sector workers.

In Victoria, workers employed by private contractors to provide support services in schools forced the state Labor Government to kick out contractors who were not even paying workers minimum award wages and conditions. This was a first step in the workers' struggle to win back direct employment as public sector workers.

Labor Governments Do Some Good Things, Some Bad Things On Privatisation Front

During the Covid-19 period, there has been even more pressure on governments to provide better services, especially to ensure a hygienic environment for people using public services. 

In Victoria for example, the Andrews Labor Government decided to increase cleaning services on public transport and areas like railway stations and tram stops. Here was a perfect opportunity to directly employ more public sector workers, ensure they were well trained and with public sector standard pay and conditions.

However, the Government fell well short of this. It gave this extra Covid-19 related cleaning work to a major contract cleaning company GJK who said thank you very much and then engaged cleaners as individual contractors on under-award pay.

In some States and Territories when under a Labor Government, through pressure from workers and their Unions, there has been a move by these Governments to disguise the continuation of the neo-liberal privatisation and outsourcing agenda by giving assurances to Unions and their members that only "responsible contractors" would be given contracts to provide public services. 

However, this has usually resulted in the Government Department bureaucrats allowing the so-called "responsible contractors" from continuing on their merry way of cutting corners, reducing worker numbers by not replacing those who leave, or replacing full time and part time workers with casuals or labor hire casuals.

At the federal level of Government, the Labor Government of Rudd and Gillard did some good things for workers such as introduce at least some regulations in relation to contracted out services such as ground maintenance and cleaning. This only came about because of workers' struggles over a number of years.

However as soon as the Abbott government came in to office, these services were again completely deregulated with severe consequences for workers.

So, while Labor Governments do some good things when pressured by the collective struggles of workers, the changes they make are often half measures at best, or temporary due to the short-term electoral cycle. 

This often demoralises workers who always vote Labor, but they also see the limitations of parliamentary system of which Labor governments and Labor out of office are a part.


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