NBN subcontractors describe diabolical working conditions

Contractors performing installation and maintenance work for the NBN described diabolical working conditions to a parliamentary inquiry, with work unevenly distributed, poorly paid, and handed to an unending supply of inexperienced ‘technicians’.

The inquiry comes on the back of national protests earlier this year by subcontractors and unions over pay and conditions, which is also the subject of a separate NBN Co-commissioned KPMG audit.

Several NBN contractors and subcontractors that appeared before the committee on Tuesday shared their experiences of working on the project, including the gradual erosion of their income.

NBN Co is currently paying contractors a $75 top-up fee on each job they perform while the KPMG audit is underway.

If that top-up goes, so will many contractors from the telecommunications industry, communications union CEPU’s national president Shane Murphy said.

“Without the $75 enablement fee which originally came via NBN Co because of [technical] issues with a new dispatch system … there would be no survival,” he alleged.

Murphy said one of the problems with NBN Co’s contracting system is that it encouraged recruitment of an endless supply of often unskilled workers under a web of sub-contracting arrangements.

“There is no business plan – and I mentioned this to NBN Co in a meeting – of the total number of required contractors on the project,” he said.

“What’s occurring here through Gumtree or other platforms [is] we’re getting unskilled or many other people applying coming from many industries where they’ve never worked in this sector, sliding underneath the prime [contractors] and then creating a mass flood of [sub-]contractors.”

The large supply of labour diluted the amount of work on offer.

“You then only get two-to-three jobs a day,” Murphy said.

“Many skilled workers, who have been on the job for many years and invested in their business and training, are now finding themselves unable to make a reasonable living because people have flooded the market. 

“You can’t have a situation where there’s a certain volume of work but there’s an unlimited volume of people doing it, and that is the disconnect here in the model.”

Both Murphy and contractors also alleged that certain prime contractors sitting underneath NBN Co’s main delivery partners had been able to secure large amounts of work, and often many of the simpler jobs.

However, there was no guarantee that inexperienced contractors could complete the work satisfactorily, and some contractors said they were sent in to fix things on “many” occasions.

“In the days where I would go into work, I’d be running into people that were working under primes and they’d have 8-10 jobs,” contractor Steve Nedelkovski said.

“And no disrespect to some of them, but some were so underqualified, sometimes I’d have to go back out to a job … and have to solve the problem that seven or eight [inexperienced] technicians couldn’t solve.

“That [occurred] on many, many occasions.”

Contractors reported also being assigned jobs that were hours of driving apart and that there was no guarantee could be completed.

“If you go to a job, you don’t know what’s happening on the day, and if you dont have a particular material then you can’t complete [it] so there’s a materials shortfall,” contractor Burak Sagol said.

“Or if there’s an issue with the network where a builder hasn’t put in a pipe from the side of the house to the street, or the NBN design is wrong, we don’t get a payment I believe we deserve. 

“It might be $47 for two hours onsite where I might try to get through 120m length of pipe and hit that block at the last 20m and we don’t get paid for that. 

“That’s happened in the past where you’re three hours in and you ‘incomplete’ [the ticket] and you get $47, before taxes, expenses and everything you’ve done on that day.”

Contractors said the pay is driving experienced technicians out of the industry.

“The people that had 20 years or 30 years of experience are [now] far and few between,” Nedelkovski said.

“That [$75] enablement fee [temporarily paid by NBN Co] is what’s keeping people in the field at the moment,” Sagol added.

Contractors working under primes, meanwhile, alleged that the extra job fees weren’t actually making it into their pockets at all.

They also alleged that prime contractors pocketed up to twice as much money as they said they did, leaving as little as 50 percent of a job fee flowing to those actually doing the field work.

“NBN Co has effectively outsourced the backbone of its workforce, the installation and repair technicians, which has allowed a series of companies to game the system and profit from a taxpayer-funded project,” Murphy said.

“NBN Co management has completely failed to put in place any system to take accountability for its workforce or its practices.”

NBN Co is expected to front the committee on Tuesday afternoon.