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Better Conditions for SA Power Workers

6 July 2022

The Hon. R.A. SIMMS: I rise to speak in support of the hundreds of SA power workers who are fighting for better pay and conditions. These workers have been at the forefront in responding to local disasters. After bushfires, they were some of the first people on the ground, getting power back to homes. They work around the clock after a storm to ensure that we can all access power. They are frontline, essential workers and we need to protect their rights.

South Australian power workers have been in a two-year negotiation with SA Power Networks and Enerven over their enterprise agreement. In that time, their wages have been frozen while the cost of living is soaring. Since early 2020, the power workers have been fighting against a reduction in conditions and a pay increase below the current rate of CPI. What we are seeing is a case of a private company putting its profits before the interests of its workers.

Last week's strike was a joint effort between the Australian Services Union, the Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union and Professionals Australia to rally against the proposed changes by their employer. This follows six months of industrial action taken by the unions. There have been over 20,000 hours of strike actions, with workers walking out of depots across the state daily. I want to commend the actions of the unions in their continued fight for the rights of working people, and I want to assure those unions and those workers that the Greens stand with them in this fight.

The joint group of unions have called for a 3.5 per cent wage increase each year over a three-year term, more secure employment, greater opportunities for women and better workloads for their employees. These are all fair and reasonable requests for this workforce. SA Power Networks and Enerven have proposed a two-tiered wage system that would adjust minimum wage rates for new employees to 80 per cent of current wages. This would undermine new employees, as their remuneration would be less than that of current employees.

As reported in The Advertiser last week, the CEPU SA Branch Secretary, John Adley, said, and I quote:

SA Power Workers are fighting to protect not just our own working conditions and job security, but we’re also standing up for the next generation of apprentices, and the future of our industry. It's only fair that workers doing the same job, should be paid the same.

The Greens agree. The company are proposing a wage rate rise of 3.5 per cent per annum, while CPI is currently sitting at 5.1 per cent, while they are also seeking to erode the conditions of power workers.

One of the clauses that SA Power networks have put forward is a forced labour clause. This clause takes away the autonomy of workers by forcing them to work outside of usual hours in emergency situations, under threat of disciplinary action. Having power workers on call at any time of the day or week, regardless of their roster, is unsustainable for those workers and it diminishes their work-life balance.

This is a matter of respect and of fair work conditions. Power workers are essential for running our state. Without fully functioning power, we are unable to function as a society. These workers need to be paid fairly with conditions that do not undermine their work-life balance. The CEPU tells us that Utilities Management has been testing legal principles, effectively aiming to use the judiciary to halt industrial action and reduce the rights of workers to stand up for themselves against corporate interests. Workers who participate in industrial action have been stood down, and this includes apprentices.

Yet again, what we are seeing is the disastrous effects of privatisation, where profits have been the priority in a key public service, with little care for the needs of workers on whom the service relies. I have spoken in this place before about the increased costs to consumers that flow from privatisation, but we also need to examine the effects of privatisation on these workers. If this is an example of how private essential services treat their workers, then it is a shameful situation.

Questions have been asked about who is paying for this protracted campaign against workers. Is it our power bills that are covering this campaign? Is it the power bills that are suffering while SA Power Networks and Enerven prioritise profits over negotiating a fair outcome for their workers? The Labor government has committed to deliver safer and fair workplaces. The Greens call on the Malinauskas government to uphold their opposition to privatisation by bringing SA Power Networks back into public hands and doing everything they can to protect the rights of these workers.