A company that has already brought misery to hundreds of thousands, including refugees and mainland prisoners, is now being given the keys to Australia’s social welfare system. The federal government has announced that some of Centrelink’s call centre functions will be outsourced to Serco.
There’s no doubt that Centrelink is in crisis. But instead of reinstating the funding and 1,200 staff the Coalition has ripped out of the department, the government will divert $51.7 million to a serial corporate offender. Human services minister Alan Tudge has also announced that the department will provide “computerised digital assistants” to answer “simple” questions. Both announcements are a measure of the contempt with which the government holds both staff and clients of Centrelink.
In its 2016 “Poverty in Australia” report, the Australian Council of Social Service attacked the marketisation of social security: “The social safety net is not some kind of shopping centre, where everyone has the ability and capacity to go and select the right widget for their individual needs. Applying these kinds of market ideologies to a core public service is a laughable absurdity”.
The Coalition has created a dire situation at Centrelink, in which 55 million unanswered and 7 million abandoned calls were logged last financial year. It’s slashed and burned, all the while holding down wages, leaving Centrelink with more inexperienced and casual staff, ill equipped to cope with demand.
Top that up with the robo-debt debacle, a result of outsourcing program design and ignoring staff input. Thousands were accused of fraud and faced demands of immediate repayment. No wonder client calls to the department blew out.
To hand welfare services to a company such as Serco goes beyond absurdity into outright cruelty. Its record in prisons, for example, is appalling. In a West Australian prison run by the company, a report last year found only 36.5 percent of beds were compliant with guidelines – many prisoners were double-bunked, causing overcrowding. Health care and access to exercise were also found wanting.
Antony Loewenstein, a long-time refugee advocate, took a closer look at Serco in its British homeland and found a litany of outrages, from lies about its GP service to abuse of refugees in Yarls Wood immigration detention centre. Writing for Crikey, he concluded that Serco’s role in asylum seeker detention “is defined by scandal, cost cutting, obfuscation and abuse”.
The Community and Public Sector Union, which covers Centrelink workers, describes the company as “a tax avoiding, multinational parasite … that profits from downgrading public services and underpaying the people who provide them”. Ads for positions in the new Serco Centrelink call centre quote a start rate of $15 an hour, nearly $5 less than the absolute minimum at Centrelink.
Serco’s practices and the Coalition’s privatisation agenda should be rejected, replaced with a humane welfare service driven by need, not profit.