NCR plays down strike impact

Technology vendor NCR has downplayed the impact of up to 90 of its field service engineers walking off the job today, despite the potential threat to information technology systems at airports, banks and educational institutions around the nation. The workers stopped work from 6:30am this morning (AEDT) in New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia in a dispute over pay.

Technology vendor NCR has downplayed the impact of up to 90 of its field service engineers walking off the job today, despite the potential threat to information technology systems at airports, banks and educational institutions around the nation.

The workers stopped work from 6:30am this morning (AEDT) in New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia in a dispute over pay. The strike is scheduled to last one week.

"Obviously we've got contingency plans in place, because we were given notification of this for a while," a spokesperson from NCR said in a telephone interview with ZDNet Australia this morning. He added some staff would be repositioned to deal with gaps in service and support calls prioritised according to need and service level agreements with customers.

"We've also got service partners who we normally work with, and they're looking after any overflow of service as and where needed," he said.

However, while a statement from the vendor in the early afternoon described the anticipated impact on customers as minimal at worst, the spokesperson was less assured in his earlier interview. "It'd be stupid to say that an industrial action doesn't cause a problem, it's more a question of where there's disruption," he said.

The Australian Services Union (ASU), which represents the striking staff, said the impact of the action would be significant.

"After a few days it's going to have quite a big impact, with the ATMs, with Sydney Airport, with Qantas, with the major banks, they've got contracts too with some of the major supermarkets and cash carriers and things like that," the ASU's NSW and ACT Services branch secretary Sally McManus said this morning following meetings with workers.

In a telephone interview with ZDNet Australia, McManus said NCR would find it hard to maintain service levels.

"Our understanding is that they've got some contractors out there at the moment, trying to do the work, but our understanding is that in New South Wales they've only got five [people], and you know with 40 people on strike that's not going to help at all," she said.

"It's really hard actually to replace most of them because you've got to know the machines and have the qualifications."

McManus said NCR had tried to service Sydney Airport and Qantas by contracting an external company during previous industrial action, but "they just ended up stuffing it up more". The contractor concerned refused the work this time choosing to focus on its own clients instead, she explained.

While NCR estimated around 50 of its 150-strong field service engineer workforce had walked off the job, McManus said the real number was much higher.

"In New South Wales there's about 40 people on strike, with probably about five people working. In South Australia, I think they've got about 30 and its pretty much all of them. And in Queensland I'd say it'd be about 60 percent of them, and they're probably got about 30 workers as well," she said.

McManus said around 110 of the 150 field service engineers in those states were members of the ASU.

Negotiations break down
Last Thursday, NCR attempted to halt the action by sending the engineers a 42-page document outlining details of a new pay offer.

"We've gone out directly to every services engineer with an offer from NCR, so that these guys can make up their own mind about whether what is being offered to them is fair and equitable," the company's spokesperson said, noting they had until 27 March to respond.

In this afternoon's statement, NCR said it had been "negotiating in good faith" with the ASU and had made offers that reflected the union's requests. "Unfortunately, every offer is met with a new set of claims from the union".

The vendor added that it would "continue to work directly with [its] employees and their representatives to reach a swift conclusion to the negotiations".

However, the ASU claims the latest NCR offer was not reasonable. "They've offered three percent a year [pay increase], and a reduction in some of the conditions," McManus said, noting the increase was dependent on NCR being able to reduce some car allowance, as well as to change working hours with a month's notice, and decrease overtime wages.

"They said to us that their last offer is not negotiable," she added. "So on that basis we said unless you move on the offer, the strike's going to keep going."

McManus alleged the affected workers were poorly paid in general.

"Our average member earns AU$33,000," she said. "The starting rate is AU$29,800. The pay increases they've had over the last five years have been less than CPI [Consumer Price Index], so their real wages have gone backward. And so the three percent would only just keep them up with CPI, and there's no compensation for the other years of lost wages."

McManus said Apple and Microsoft certifications were common among the workers, with some of them having tertiary education at TAFE or university level.

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