Telecom NZ faces engineer protests

Telecom New Zealand faced union protests in Auckland today in relation to its re-shuffle of engineering contractors.
Written by Juha Saarinen, Contributor

Telecom New Zealand faced union protests in Auckland today in relation to its re-shuffle of engineering contractors.

New Zealand's Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union (EPMU) and network engineers from Telecom contractors Downer and Transfield staged a series of drive-by protests through central Auckland. EPMU national organiser for the telecommunications and power industry, Joe Gallagher, said some 450 vans took part in the demonstration.

Chorus van protest

The van protest streaming through Auckland (Credit: Alain Russell)

The vans featured the livery of Telecom New Zealand's network arm, Chorus. Gallagher said the engineers were angry at being forced to become owner-operators instead of employees as a result of Chorus restructuring the contractor deals between the three Australian-owned companies.

In the past, Transfield and Downer EDI Engineering were contracted by Telecom (and later by Chorus as operational separation was mandated). Gallagher said a new company, Visionstream, will now serve the populous Auckland and Northland regions, a move announced last week and brought in, he said, "with great secrecy".

As a result of the restructuring, engineers that were employees of Downer and Transfield will now be expected to become independent owner-operators. This means, Gallagher said, that they have to buy their own expensive vans and gear, which must meet Chorus' specifications.

All in all, Gallagher said around 900 people would be affected by the changes. He believes there would be no benefit to engineers as a result of the changes, and said it was unfair to shift costs to his members in a recession. "It's not like our guys are earning millions as it is — most are on NZ$18 to $20 an hour, and have been on that money for the past 20 years," he said.

Gallagher added the collective agreements with Downer and Transfield had now expired, but believes it's necessary to make a stand to stop Telecom from "destroying the industry, like they seem to do every five years". He would not say if any further action by the union is on the cards.

Chorus spokesperson Melanie Marshall said her company was a little disappointed with the protests, but disputed the turnout was as large as the EPMU claimed. Marshall estimated there were only 80 vans in the drive-by action, and noted that the engineers were back at work at 11 o'clock.

It's not like our guys are earning millions as it is

EPMU organiser Joe Gallagher

According to Marshall, the changes are necessary for Chorus to meet its commitments to customers. "We need more flexibility with time," Marshal said, as customers want to be able to book installers and maintenance engineers outside working hours.

The changes are part of a 10-year contract that Chorus is signing with the three Australian companies. In total, Marshall said the contract was worth NZ$3 billion, and that it would help provide certainty for everyone over a long period of time.

Marshall said Visionstream's owner-operator model was already in place in Australia, and that the company had "processes" to help engineers shifting from being employees and needing to finance vehicles and equipment.

She said that Chorus had been consulting with the union and its members over the changes, holding "meet and greets" with Visionstream and providing information on the plans. A Visionstream spokesperson said the union was being disingenuous in saying engineers will be worse off under the owner-operator model.

The company will provide training on how to run a company, as well as financial support, including interest-free loans to purchase vehicles and equipment, the spokesperson said.

According to the spokesperson, the owner-operator model has worked to the benefit of Telstra network engineers in Australia, with no ex-employees regretting the move to independent contractors. Saying the union was fully briefed on the changes, the Visionstream spokesperson said his company was happy to continue to engage with engineers and that it is keen to retain the skilled workers.

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