National youth mental health service headspace has threatened to axe dozens of clinicians unless they immediately sign on to new workplace contracts.
Nearly 70 staff at eheadspace – the foundation’s round-the-clock telephone and online counselling provider – were told they had 24 hours to sign on to individual agreements that locked in year-long wage freezes, or they would lose their jobs.
A dispute has been listed in the Fair Work Commission after headspace refused requests to extend the deadline.
“For an iconic healthcare service, they don’t treat their staff with any better respect than 7-Eleven or Grill’d,” union organiser Serena Ho said.
A leaked email from the head of human services, seen by Fairfax Media, warns that anyone who did not accept the new contracts would have their employment terminated and could not return to work on Monday.
Clinicians at eheadspace, who are employed on a contract basis and earn about $23 an hour, have told Fairfax they are “incredibly distressed” by the ultimatum, and feel they are being “strong-armed” into ceding to management’s demands.
“Everyone was given individual contracts with our terms and conditions and we were told we had 24 hours to peruse and sign up,” said one headspace clinician, who did not want to be named.
“It didn’t give us any time to seek legal or industrial advice, and we feel this is a breach of our rights.”
Headspace workers and the Health and Community Services Union have previously voiced concerns to the company about the proposed wage freeze, which they say is an “effective pay cut” due to inflation. They have also pressed the case for ongoing contracts, saying insecure work was causing anxiety.
The dispute comes as headspace grapples with the uncertainty of looming federal funding changes that outgoing chief executive Chris Tanti fears could threaten the foundation’s future.
Under a new arrangement, funding will no longer flow directly from the government to headspace, but through primary health networks instead.
A spokesman for headspace said it was always prepared to speak to its staff and their union on all workplace matters. He would not comment further about the contract negotiations, but denied that management had threatened to sack anyone.
“Contract negotiations between staff and management at headspace – in all departments including eheadspace – are confidential,” he said.
“Negotiations around new contracts, post-June 30, are ongoing.”
Health and Community Services Union assistant state secretary Paul Healey said the eheadspace clinicians performed an “incredibly difficult job for what is already very low pay”.
“Threatening to sack these workers shows a complete lack of respect for their work,” he said.
“Headspace is supposed to value and advocate for mental health, and here they are forcing anxiety and a lack of worth onto their own employees.”
This article first appeared on ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ on 1 July 2016.