The AMWU has delivered a strong message to the Senate Inquiry into staffing and skills shortfalls in Australia’s defence maintenance with up to a dozen member groups also making their own contributions.
The union’s submission calls for a re-think in the way the Defence Department handles its physical, science and engineering (PSE) workers with a plea to recognise their specialist technical roles in supporting the armed services and to carefully re-build their numbers.
Assistant National Secretary Mike Nicolaides said great interest from members as the AMWU put together its submission before last Friday’s deadline indicated the depth of concern over the present and future impact of funding and staffing cuts to Defence capability.
“The policy makers need to understand that the PSE workforce is distinct from the wider public service, with the need for specialist policies tailored to their occupational disciplines in keeping equipment safe and functioning properly,” he said.
Submissions came from members in facilities in Victoria, NSW and South Australia highlighting the impact at facilities including research and development labs, a shipyard, airfields, vehicle testing and weapons testing sites, and in quality assurance.
Our report emphasises the pressure on the PSE workforce by the failure of Defence to heed the warnings of the dire consequences of failing to replace specialist staff who retire or leave.
Mr Nicolaides said that by lumping PSE staff in with the general public service recruitment “chill” since 2013 to save money, the Defence Department was undermining the defence of the nation.
It was “saving pennies but losing pounds”.
“The temptation is to continue to outsource to private industry, but they never ask themselves if this is sustainable. There are some functions which should never be outsourced”, he said.
“As technical staff leave, their hands-on experience, often gained over many years, is being forfeited. It can’t be bought off-the-shelf”.
“What Defence needs are teams balanced between academically qualified professionals and the experienced and practical techs, but that vital balance is being lost,” Mr Nicolaides said.
AMWU member Mark Keenan said he decided to make a submission due to Defence’s false economy on frigate systems maintenance at Garden Island in Sydney.
“The ‘First Principles’ recommendation is to re-build their engineering by not outsourcing but they seem to be doing the opposite. The culture and the reality is to reduce public service numbers,” he said.
“They are hiring ex-Defence people back in as contractors to do the work, at a far higher cost.”
Angered by the Federal Government’s failure to replace staff and its pay offer of more hours for a rise well below CPI, AMWU members have been taking industrial action including stoppages, administrative bans, and bans on working with outside contractors.