Centrelink staff will launch two weeks of targeted industrial action over the Turnbull government’s “ideological attack” on the Department of Human Services.
The Community and Public Sector Union announced the upcoming strike action on Monday, saying it is in response to the automated debt recovery scandal, as well as job cuts and stalled negotiations over a pay rise.
CPSU spokesman Dermot Browne said the government was warned “years ago” by union members that the automated debt system was going to backfire, but pushed ahead anyway.
Centrelink is using an allegedly flawed computer algorithm to demand that thousands of Australians repay welfare they supposedly should never have received.
“We had people working on this stuff years ago saying, ‘this robo-debt stuff is going to be a really bad idea, you should not do it’, and they were ignored,” Mr Browne told The New Daily.
“We’ve also had people for the last three-and-a-half years saying, ‘your approach on bargaining which is cutting people’s workplace rights, refusing a decent pay rise and all that sort of stuff is a bad idea’, and they ignored that and steamed ahead anyway.”
Centrelink employees last took action over a pay rise between the Christmas and new year period.
Mr Browne said union members working on debt recovery complaints would be exempt from the new strike action, so as not to cause more distress to Australians impacted by the debt recovery process.
“Union members working directly right now on the robo-debt stuff, helping people navigate their way through the maze, they are going to be except from the industrial action,” he said.
“What we don’t want to do is make people who are caught up in that horrible situation make their life anymore difficult.”
The industrial action will be held on February 13, 15, 17, 20, 22 and 24, with workers taking 30-minute strikes.
It coincides with calls from the Greens and Labor to establish a Senate inquiry into the controversial scheme.
The automated program, which cross-references employment data from the Australian Tax Office and Centrelink, has been criticised by social services groups for placing profits above people.
The program has issued nearly 170,000 notices of potential overpayment since July last year, when human oversight was reduced in a bid to save money. Hundreds of complaints have been sent to the ‘Not My Debt‘ website, alleging that the amounts are either partly or wholly inaccurate.
Meanwhile, the department’s 34,000 staff have been without a pay rise for three-and-a-half years, alongside 5000 jobs and significant budget cuts.
Liberal Senator Eric Abetz, whose Tasmanian electorate has a large number of welfare recipients, recently accused Centrelink of having “let down the Australian people”, and did not rule out supporting a Senate inquiry. His Tasmanian electorate has a large number of welfare recipients.
Strikes to affect ‘services across Australia’: DHS
The Department of Human Services was first informed about the approaching strike on Friday, with General Manager Hank Jongen saying services across Australia could be affected.
“This action has the potential to impact Centrelink, Medicare and Child Support services across Australia,” he said in a statement provided to The New Daily.
“If there are disruptions they will be to our telephone and face-to-face services on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
“We’re asking customers to use the self-service options available through myGov and the Centrelink, Medicare and Child Support mobile apps.
“Of course, anyone who needs to speak to us can phone or visit, they just need to know that this may take longer due to the industrial action.”
Mr Jongen reiterated that customer payments will not be affected by the industrial action, reassuring DHS will work hard to minimise disruption.