No sign, no job
by Anna Pha Stellar Call Centre Solutions offers companies far more than a call centre service. As the Stellar experiment illustrates, call centres offer employers a way out of employing workers on awards or enterprise agreements, and a way to exclude trade unions and hire non-union cheap labour on individual contracts. At Stellar employment is on a "no sign, no job" basis. There are now over 200,000 Australian workers employed in call centres. Growth in these centres has enabled Telstra, banks, insurance companies, airlines and other public contact businesses to drastically reduce staffing levels in their city operations and completely shut down centres in regional and rural areas of Australia. Stellar is jointly owned by Telstra and Excell Global Services Inc, each company having 50 percent ownership. Excel is a US company which has operations around the world. It is one of the largest call centre outsourcing companies in the world. Excell Global Services handles over 40 million calls per month operating out of locations in the US, Canada, UK and Europe. Excell hit the headlines in 1999 when it was announced that Bell Canada was selling it operations service centre to the company. The sale involved 2400 telephone operators and the likely closure of 50 offices in Canada. Bell would own 30 percent of the company set up by Excell for operator services. Excell was looking at making cuts to wages in the region of 40 percent. Excell Global handles the national directory assistance listings for the United States. It has contracts with leading corporations such as Barkley Bank, Marks and Spencer, Cable and Wireless, Utility Corp, AT & T, as well as Bell Canada. It pits workers against workers on a global basis pressuring them to speed up their call times and increase productivity. Its joint venture with Telstra is no exception. Stellar has opened call centres in North Sydney, Wollongong, Adelaide, Perth, Obena on the Gold Coast, Joondalup in Western Australia and in Adelaide. While conditions vary from site to site, they are all far lower than the wages and conditions of workers doing identical work at Telstra. For example, at its Perth site Stellar offered a base rate of just $25,000 per annum for a 40-hour week, with no holiday leave loading, evening or weekend loadings. At its Obena centres they were offered $28,000 for a 40- hour working week, five days sick leave, and four weeks annual leave without leave loadings. Telstra staff are paid around $35,000. Stellar employees are required to meet minimum performance targets which are virtually impossible without breaching standard OH & S guidelines for computer operators. They are expected to answer on average something in the region of 450 calls in a 2.5 hour period without any break from the screen. The creation of Stellar has made it possible for Telstra to downsize its workforce considerably by offering redundancies to its existing call centre workforce and passing the work on to cheaper and more highly exploited labour at Stellar. Stellar now runs the State Transit Authority's 131500 timetable hot line number at its Hornsby call centre in NSW. The trade unions challenged the lower wages and conditions of Stellar workers that occurred when Telstra outsourced its work to the company. Justice Wilcox on September 12, 1999, found in favour of the unions that Transmission of Business has occurred between Telstra and Stellar requiring transfer of the old wages and working conditions. Unfortunately a full bench of the Federal Court in February this year overturned that decision which means that Stellar staff will not have the right under Australian law, to enjoy the same pay and conditions as their counterparts in Telstra call centres who perform identical work. The Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) believes that the court decision gives the green light to Telstra and other companies to use outsourcing as a means of lowering wages and conditions. This is a disappointing outcome. The CPSU, the Australian Services Union and the Communications Division of CEPU will continue to campaign for improved pay and conditions and also for unionisation of call centres.