No profit from rape: unionists fight privatisation of helpline

The centrepiece of Sydney’s International Women’s Day march this year was a contingent of unionised workers, out on the streets to defend their jobs and the service they provide. These workers answer calls to 1800RESPECT – the national helpline for rape and domestic violence survivors. They are facing the sack, and the service risks being privatised and degraded.

The federal government has colluded with Medibank Health Solutions to funnel funding towards MHS and away from the non-profit organisation Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia, which has been providing the service for six years. According to its annual report, Medibank made a profit of $417 million last year, with the top six executives being paid a total of $10 million.

MHS has been aggressively acquiring telephone counselling services – a small but fast growing proportion of its profits. MHS often employs workers to work from their own homes, without any on-site support, on a rate about half of the base rate paid to existing RDVSA employees.

In response to this threat to their jobs and their service, the workers at RDVSA – a strong union site – have launched a public campaign.

The IWD rally was addressed by Simone White, who is an ASU delegate at RDVSA and a member of Socialist Alternative. This is an edited transcript of her speech (footage of the full speech is available via Unions NSW).

In 2015, Malcolm Turnbull and Michaelia Cash – that woman who fails to report the multi-million dollar investment properties she has – fronted the media and announced to the world that the Liberal government was going to provide an extra $5 million funding to the 1800RESPECT service. They said it was so that we could answer more of the calls to our service that we could not respond to straightaway because we simply did not have the resources to do so.

What they did not front the media to announce was that they weren’t giving us a cent of that money. Instead, they took most of the service away from us and redirected millions of dollars to Medibank Health Solutions, a subsidiary company of Medibank Private.

So now we don’t answer any of the calls initially – the sexual assault and domestic violence specialists don’t answer the calls. Medibank runs a triage call centre, with workers working from their own homes, answering the calls of traumatised people, and Medibank makes a profit out of it.

They make a profit out of human suffering. It is so grotesque it beggars belief. And if that isn’t enough, our service, and the women workers from our service, have been maligned to justify handing over this money and trashing 1800RESPECT.

I was trying to think about the most polite way to explain what this process of maligning has been like. And somewhat ironically, I think the language of Donald Trump and his malicious political aides kind of gets to the point. People probably are now familiar with the term alternative facts: well, staff at Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia have become accustomed to alternative facts being put forward to rationalise why our funding has been taken away and why the Liberals want to see all of us women workers out of our jobs.

There is a gross irony about women workers at a domestic violence and sexual assault service being threatened with losing their jobs and those same women workers having alternative facts put forward to justify why they are going to lose their jobs. Those same women workers are trying to speak out for themselves and survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, and are being threatened not to speak out. These are the kinds of threats that are made and are being made against workers all around Australia at the moment – and that always are really, aren’t they?

“Shut up about your penalty rates being cut, and actually while we’re at it that will be good for you, it’ll be good for workers to get penalty rate cuts.” “Shut up about John Howard’s police force for building and construction workers being reintroduced.”

Even though it means that if a worker dies, or is seriously injured on a work site, like what happened in Sydney last week, when a young man lost his life, if you want to go on strike or have industrial action about something like that on your workplace, you can be fined and locked up.

The message from our government is “cop it sweet”. Cop it sweet for all these attacks, and that certainly applies to the overwhelmingly women workers in the community sector.

Since 2013, the Liberal government has slashed a billion dollars from community services. A billion dollars from a sector that was already under-resourced. That billion dollars represents a war on women workers who are losing their jobs, a war on the poor and vulnerable, a war on survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, a war on people with disabilities, a war on refugees and Muslims who are the targets of appalling racism and Islamophobia; it is a war on the working class in general.

So, in the tradition in which the Rape and Domestic Violence Services was founded 50 years ago, we are not going to cop these attacks. We are fighting and we really want you to fight with us, because we don’t actually think this is just a fight about us. It’s a bigger fight, a fight about the rights of workers and the oppressed.