Telstra hangs up on call centre

WORKERS at the Telstra call centre at Goonellabah may be forgiven for feeling mad about Tuesday's announcement that the centre was to close. A former worker recalled that only two years ago, assurances were given that jobs in Lismore would be secure when the Grafton centre was closed down, amid a storm of protest.

Although Telstra's head of customer service, Peter Jamieson, said the announcement was "subject to consultations with unions and staff", it seems like a forlorn hope the centre will not shut on October 23.

Mayor Jenny Dowell said it would take $30 million out of Lismore's economy, "and that's not counting the multiplier effect."

"I'm gutted," she said. "And if I feel gutted, just imagine how those poor workers are feeling. Our thoughts are clearly with them, first and foremost.

"There were couples with both partners working there. This will be a huge financial blow for people from across the region who will be feeling totally lost."

Many of the affected workers were having a drink at the Hilltop Tavern after learning that up to 116 jobs could go.

The Echo spoke to some of them soon after the announcement was made, but they were unable to make any public comments because of contractual obligations.

Those with over 20 years working for Telstra - most of them at the same centre for their whole career - expressed their concern for the younger workers and those with young families. The workers facing dismissal perform duties in customer service and sales.

A special moment happened when the manager of the centre arrived. The workers spontaneously gave her a round of applause. She fought back tears, but composed herself and smiled.

Despite rumours of a possible closure for years, the announcement surprised everyone at the centre as a new group of workers was trained less than four months ago and new computer monitors were recently installed.

Speaking to The Echo shortly after giving the workers the bad news, Peter Jameson denied any commitments

had been made to Lismore at the time of the Grafton centre closing.

"This is a dynamic industry and sometimes we have to make decisions like this, painful though they are," he said.

The Goonellabah jobs are part of a wider cut, with 126 Telstra call centre jobs likely to go in Townsville and a further 180 in Sydney and Melbourne.

"The most relevant factors were that our customer care has increased to the degree that customers need to call us less, bringing about a 20% reduction in the number of callers; at the same time, our online self-service facility has increased and 30% of customers now operate online," Mr Jamieson said.

"The third reason is that we had an agreement with Foxtel to provide service to their customers through our call centre. Foxtel has decided to have its own customer service centre," he added.

As part of the announcement, Mr Jamieson told workers they'll be invited to look for opportunities across the Telstra network, with support for relocation available from the company.

"It is a very difficult thing to do, and clearly there will be a very heavy impact on people," he added.

Telstra will now enter into a period of consultations with staff and unions.

"It's not a foregone conclusion," Mr Jamieson told The Echo.

National lead organiser for the Community and Public Sector Union, Teresa Davison, said there was a chance of saving some jobs if there was a strong campaign against the decision.

"I understand there is no specific end date - the process is due to start in September," Ms Davison said.

"There are redundancies in Telstra every day, but if your position is made redundant in a big city, there are other jobs in the same building or down the road. In a regional town, there are few other Telstra jobs people can get.

"This will have a devastating effect on families, who may have to move away to find work.

"It's particularly callous, coming on the back of Telstra's $3.42 billion profit in the past year."

Ms Davison said any campaign against the job cuts would focus on how the company was doing very well, and the staff were experienced, long-term people.

"This is a bad decision for the company, for the staff - it's not a good business decision.

"Telstra has many customers in the region yet they don't think twice about ripping these jobs out of the community."

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