Senator Eric Abetz. Photo: Andrew Meares
Australia's 160,000 federal public servants are facing an assault on their traditional 7½-hour working day as the Coalition pursues its hardline policies on pay and employment conditions.
The government has confirmed its departments have been given the go-ahead to demand longer working hours in return for annual pay rises in enterprise bargaining deals.
Unions are reporting that the hours of work are being raised by more and more departments and agencies as part of the service-wide bargaining talks, and that spending more time at their desks each week is a real possibility for many Commonwealth employees.
The Abbott government has ruled that there will be no pay increases in the bureaucracy without "genuine productivity gains", and some departments are telling their personnel this could mean working longer hours.
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As the difficult process of negotiating 117 workplace agreements gets under way, working hours appear to have been targeted by some agencies as an opportunity to prove they have extracted productivity gains.
The office of Public Service Minister Eric Abetz confirmed this week departments were free to demand more working hours, and the Public Service Commission said longer days could be exchanged for rises.
The Professionals Australia union said the move was a return to 1950s-style workplaces and that public servants were already working hundreds of hours of unpaid overtime to ensure their jobs were done as budgets and workforces dwindled.
Standard working hours are set by individual agencies and vary across the public service. They are usually between 36.75 and 37.5 a week.
According to the National Employment Standards, maximum full-time weekly hours stand at 38, and the level of additional hours must be reasonable.
Workers at the Bureau of Meteorology were told this week their hours could be targeted as their bosses sought increasingly elusive productivity gains.
"An example of a genuine productivity gain is an increase in the ordinary weekly hours of work," bureau deputy director Vicki Middleton wrote to her staff.
Senator Abetz's office said workplace agreements would be negotiated at agency level and it
confirmed the government approved of departments offering longer hours in return for pay rises.
''In certain circumstances, extra hours is one of a number of options available to agencies to achieve productivity offsets,'' a spokeswoman for the minister said.
Each deal struck between a department and its staff must be signed off by Senator Abetz under the government's bargaining policy.
The Public Service Commission, which is co-ordinating the push, gave more detail.
''The government's bargaining policy provides that agencies cannot reduce current hours of work,'' a spokeswoman said. ''There is nothing that prevents agencies from negotiating to increase hours, having regard to the National Employment Standards, for example, as a productivity offset for wage increases.''
Professionals Australia public service organiser Dave Smith accused the government and public service chiefs of having a ''punch-clock mentality''.
''This is a double whammy,'' Mr Smith said. ''At the same time as jobs are being cut, employees are effectively looking at working an extra week every year.
''This is a 1950s approach that focuses on a punch-clock mentality rather than outputs.
''It's not genuine productivity.
''Our members are already working hundreds of additional unpaid hours to cover existing science and engineering skills gaps.''