Public sector disability workers in NSW are resisting the O’Farrell government’s plans to privatise the state’s entire disability services. The government has announced its intention to outsource all public disability services within four years. In response, workers are taking industrial action to protect their rights and those of their clients.

A meeting of Public Service Association (PSA) delegates in the Department of Ageing, Disability and Home Care (ADHC) has condemned the NSW government “for using the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) to disguise its privatisation agenda”.

In the Hunter region, an NDIS trial area, the government is planning the closure of the Stockton, Tomaree and Kanangra disability care centres. The Stockton centre alone employs 1000 workers. Statewide, more than 14,000 disability services employees are to be forced into the private sector or out of the industry altogether.

Late last year, the state government passed laws which enable it unilaterally to transfer public sector employees to the private sector without compensation. The legislation leaves redundancy pay, recognition of service entitlements, superannuation and other important workplace rights and conditions unprotected. The department’s own inquiries show that disability support workers in the public service earn approximately 25 percent more than their non-government equivalents.

The PSA and NSW Nurses and Midwives Association (NMA) cover the affected workers. Rather than take the attacks lying down, unionists have been getting organised. Public forums held by the PSA and NMA have attracted hundreds and strengthened links between workers, clients and their carers.

On 11 March, PSA members from across the Hunter region working in group homes, respite centres, community support teams and the Stockton centre held a general meeting. They unanimously endorsed a motion to place bans on work related to the NDIS rollout until the entitlements and conditions of all public sector staff are protected.

The motion was subsequently endorsed by the statewide ADHC PSA delegates committee on 17 March, which voted to extend the bans across NSW. Speaking to Red Flag, Lindsay Hawkins, a delegate at the statewide meeting, said: “This campaign has been initiated by rank and file workers and delegates together with concerned family members. They’ve set the pace. The PSA leadership need to give members and delegates all the support they can to help make these bans effective.”

In an attempt to undermine the bans, the secretary of the department, Michael Coutts-Trotter, has sent all staff an email arguing that the bans “won’t change the government’s decision to withdraw from direct delivery of disability services … but will make it harder for people with disability who we support to get into the NDIS.”

Coutts-Trotter’s email is typical of the bosses’ tactic of applying guilt to dissuade care workers from fighting. A quick glance at the history books shows he’s bluffing. In 1986, striking Victorian nurses took on the state government and won, showing in the process that their working conditions were inextricably linked to the quality of health services.

Many are already arguing that the NDIS will fall far short of providing the necessary services for the majority of Australians with a disability. Privatising state disability services is yet another attack on the most vulnerable, especially those with high care and complex needs, who may not be profitable for private sector providers.

“Like most of these privatisation and service devolution policies in the past, this one is also being dressed up in positive language about things like choice, more community engagement and flexibility”, observed NMA secretary Brett Holmes. Instead, this is about a transfer of public resources to the private sector and attacking workers’ rights.

The challenge now is to spread the bans and develop momentum outside of the Newcastle area. While this area has been the first hit, it certainly won’t be the last. A fighting campaign is the only chance for these workers and those who rely on public sector disability care across the state.