Monday 16 August 2010

Ergon’s "disgraceful" treatment of Indigenous employee comes to a head

Tommy Sebasio, an electrical fitter mechanic who was employed at the Bamaga power station for 20 years, is in for the fight of his life, as the State's largest electricity supplier deals with a publicly embarrassing indigenous discrimination case.

Tommy Sebasio, who was responsible for the operation of the Bamaga power station at the northern tip Cape York, 1000 kilometers north of Cairns, was dismissed late last year by Ergon Energy for not completing paperwork.

His role as manager of power supply servicing the Cape's northern communities and Thursday Island, around 400 kilometres of Ergon power lines, was called into question after a series of performance reviews last year.

"At Bamaga, paperwork is more important
than a safe and secure power supply to Cape communities," Electricity Trades Union organiser Stuey Traill told CairnsBlog.

"Ergon is more interested in its internal paperwork than the fair treatment of long-serving employees and the provision of a safe and secure power supply to Bamaga and surrounding communities."

The Electrical Trades Union have taken Ergon to court, arguing that those employed in remote areas are being treated less favourable than their colleagues in main centres - calling it 'indirect discrimination' believed to be the first time in Australia such a case has been called.

"Ergon’s decision to sack its senior Bamaga employee, Tommy Sebasio, and its ongoing failure to re-employ him is not only an injustice to Tommy, it is also a slap in the face for Indigenous employment arrangements and service provision in Cape York communities," Stuey Traill says.

The Bamaga power station supplies electricity to Bamaga, Seisia, New Mapoon, Umagico and Injinoo, which are predominantly Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal communities, servicing around 2,500. Ergon has 740 customers including homes and businesses in the northern peninsula area.

Between 1989 and 1995 Sebasio was the sole employee at the Bamaga power station. In 1995 a second employee was added, and another in 2006, who was shared with Ergon's operation on Thursday Island.

"For 20 years Tommy Sebasio has virtually been at work or on call for 24 hours a day, seven days a week," Stuey Traill says. "He is not provided with any accommodation by Ergon, the office facilities are substandard and often without air-conditioning. There is no crib room, inadequate computer and Internet facilities."

Ergon Energy's spokesperson for Far North Queensland, Mark Timmerman told CairnsBlog it would not be appropriate to comment "in any detail" as the dismissal issue is currently the subject of a Fair Work Australia hearing.

"No decision has been reached and it would not be appropriate for Ergon Energy to comment in any detail until this tribunal has delivered that decision," Mark Timmerman said, however Ergon Energy believes it had done everything they could to resolve the issue.

"Ergon believes it had exhausted all avenues over a over a long period in an effort to satisfactorily resolve this situation," Mark Timmerman said. "The termination of Mr Sebasio's employment was the last resort. All appropriate processes were followed and we maintain that the termination was the correct decision. Ergon Energy has a strong commitment to safety and cultural awareness in all its workplaces."

During the four-day hearing in Cairns, Ergon said that the issue of "cultural heritage" was not raised prior to the dismissal, however the ETU say this was a fundamental aspect of this case, and how the employee was treated, and that Sebasio raised the cultural issues verbally on numerous occasions.

"Living in these remote Cape York Indigenous communities is not the same as in Cairns, where there is support and services easily accessible," Stuey Traill said. "The ETU have been working with Ergon to address the way they communicate and train employees in the Cape communities. Ergon expected Tommy to do online training using a dial-up connection, an on occasion when the computer was away for repairs for six months, no replacement was provided."

With three employees at the Bamaga power station, only one work vehicle that accommodated two people, was provided. "When attending jobs that required three workers, two trips had to be made to get everyone on site," Traill says. "In an emergency, one would have to drive their private vehicle. Requests for a dual cab vehicle were denied by Ergon."

The ETU recalls on one occasion a woman was without power for 10 days when the sole vehicle was broken and there was no backup to transport equipment.

"Tommy couldn’t even get Ergon to provide a wheelbarrow and two-stroke fuel for the power station mower, so he paid for the fuel himself to keep the vegetation at safe levels around the power station," Traill says. “He would regularly work in two-man crews and was required to perform difficult work in conditions, which other Ergon employees do not have to tolerate."

At the heart of the Sebasio's dismissal, was the lack of any administrative support to handle the ever increasing paper work required of station managers.

"This was despite numerous requests, however since his termination, Ergon is now providing administrative support to Bamaga," Traill says. "If its good enough now, why couldn’t Tommy get such support?"

Tommy Sebasio’s treatment over the years, and especially in the last 12 months, has been appalling, the ETU claim.

"Ergon has relied on his goodwill and good relations in the community to keep their service going," Stuey Traill says. "Yet, from Ergon, he had to put up with lack of resources; no housing or accommodation was provided; poor communications and IT; lack of training opportunities; and simply a general lack of support. Compare that neglect, with the all the promotional work Tommy did for Ergon within his community, where he is a well-respected local."

"Tommy made sure that Ergon was represented at community festivals. He taught council workers about electrical and workplace safety. He even visited local schools to talk about future careers with," Traill says. "Tommy engaged with his community as much as possible for the company's benefit. Ergon themselves know how valuable he is and they regularly used him at job expos and his photo on promotional material."
The ETU say that Ergon had no issue with Sebasio's technical competency, who was also a qualified electricial tradesman.

“A couple of pen pushers, with limited knowledge of the real world under-resourced employees like Tommy work in, have got involved and wrecked his life," Stuey Traill says. “It is time for Ergon to admit its mistake, to admit its poor handling of the resource and cultural needs of the Bamaga depot over the years and give Tommy Sebasio his job back."

A decision is expected to be handed down in the next month, however some Fair Work Australia hearings have taken up to 18 months to be determined.

CairnsBlog author Michael Moore, travelled to Bamaga to talk with locals about Tommy Sebasio’s termination. You can see more on the CairnsBlog YouTube channel...


Murriteacher said...

Why do we allow organisations to treat people like a commodity? There are numerous studies done on work culture and work commitment. All have shown that respect and appreciation for the worker brings a higher commitment from the worker. Who is going to go up there and take his place. Obviously Ergon has no idea as to the type of welcome the new person will receive. This place is almost a closed community and without support from the community the new person will be left out in the cold.

Dcg1963 said...

Ergon's treatment of Tommy Sebasio has been and is completely attrocious !  Quite clearly he has gone above and beyond the call of duty in his position over a 20 year period, getting the job done, in spite of having completely inadequate resources and support. Instead of treating him like gold,they fired him. Shame on Ergon and its management !

How they could possibly even find somebody else to replace him, with his unique range of skills, experience and cultural knowledge in his region,

Dlowe286 said...

Ergon have no idea! How can they sack someone like Tommy Sebasio? Tommy is a pillar of the community. We'll back you Stuart Traill, Ergon must be stopped from undertaking these ridiculous actions ...

Alison Alloway said...

When I worked in the Commonwealth Public Service, there was a similar case of an aboriginal public servant whose literacy skills were not the best, but who worked tirelessly in travelling out to the communities. At one time, I was his Supervisor, and I realised he had trouble interpreting legislation etc. I then typed out lists of questions for him to ask of the aboriginal people when he went out to review their benefits. The result was I had all the benefits correctly reviewed and on my desk in a timely manner. Yet, the "management" did not like this. They said I was "doing the work of the aboriginal officer."???? (My own face to face communication with community people was appalling to say the least.) However, by working together in the way I described, we both got the work done!
Pressure exerted on this man, when he left my Supervision, eventually saw him resign. We lost a good officer whose skills were not in submission writing or interpreting new legislation and software programs, but in communicating with community peoples, handling the Z cars etc. At one time this man stayed in a community, helping the police during a riot.
I was angered that the hoi polloi of my Department at that time did not understand the need for workplace skills diversity.

nocturnal congress said...

I note Abbott is going to overturn the Unfair Dismissal laws. There will be plenty of people out of work this year, just chucked out.
Wait and see.

curly joe said...

nocturnal congress, I don't believe people realise that. Most workers today can't recall what it was like not to have any protections in the has all been lost. It's like Workplace Health and Safety. Most workers today have ejoyed a safe working environment, so therefore....those of us who can remember walking on tacks and rusty nails are a dying breed....

Whoopdy Doo said...

Almost any atrocity by a government owned enterprise in Queensland can be justified by a snide reference to scary mad monk Abbott. Ooooh. Woooooh. Scary.

And to think the ALP used to be for workers.

Stuey Traill said...

Nocturnal Congress,Curly Joe.
I do believe the Mad Monk will overturn the current Unfair Dismissal laws but the fact is the ones we have under Fair Work are still rubbish.
First the terminated employee has to go to Concilliation where there is no obligation on the employer to change their mind even if the case is open and shut.
The next step is a a Fair Work hearing.
In this case Ergon had a Barrister, a lawyer, IR Manager, HR Manager and three Departmental Managers in the hearing for the proceedings.
How can an individual without the representation of a Union combat these sort of numbers?
What Ergon has done in this case is a disgrace and the laws don't help the workers thats for sure.