The Department of Employment and Workplace Relations has come under fire during Senate Estimates for engaging a high number of contractors at the same time its minister has railed against the practice.
Liberal senator Michaelia Cash described it as “hypocritical” that DEWR has more than a thousand contractors when Employment Minister Tony Burke has been so vocal about ending “insecure work” practices in the private sector.
“If they were serious about cracking down on insecure work, there wouldn’t be 1000 contractors in the Department of Employment,” Senator Cash said.
“Mr Burke should either climb off his high horse on this issue or enforce his own policies within his own department.”
Changes made to industrial relations laws in December limit fixed-term contracts, disallowing the same role to be contracted for more than two years.
In Senate estimates this week, DEWR bosses said there were 1021 contractors in the department.
Department secretary Natalie James said the process has begun where some contractors in contact centres were being offered ongoing employment through the merit system.
But it was with the number of IT specialists that changing contracts becomes problematic.
“These are workers who are used to working as contractors and the equivalency in terms of APS salary is not necessarily attractive to them,” Ms James said.
“That’s something we can’t immediately do because we don’t have the structures there.”
Senator Cash noted that it wasn’t a good look.
“It’s okay to have non-permanent roles in the Australian Public Service, in particular in Canberra, because of the market in which we operate, but at the same time, you have a minister who, in speech after speech, and statement after statement, says we want to crack down on so-called insecure work for everybody else,” Senator Cash said.
“It’s just the inconsistency in message.”
Ms James said the Australian Public Service as a whole was struggling with how to reduce the number of contractors, but there seemed to be an increase in IT contractors across the sector.
“I think that the Canberra-based public service has probably contributed to the way this industry operates by continuing to hire so many contractors,” she said.
“If the public service as a whole makes decisions about how we’re going to go about engaging our very talented technology workforce differently, then that would influence the market.
“I think that that might shift the way that people think about jobs.”
In separate estimates, Services Australia revealed it was paying IT contractors about $1300 a day for work at APS 5 and 6 levels.
Chief information and digital officer Charles McHardie said there were no plans to let any more contractors go from Services Australia this year.
“If you look at the amount of work the agency has had to do over the past couple of years, we have had to put on a lot of contractors,” he said.
Services Australia got to a ratio of almost 50-50 contractors versus public servants but was now at a level of 67 per cent of staff being public servants.
About 1200 contractors were laid off at Services Australia late last year, with many shown the door right before Christmas.
In estimates this week, it was confirmed that about 1200 contractors had now gone, with only 140 being transitioned into non-ongoing public service jobs.