02 April 2010

HSA delay - Volume Five: The Return Of Fieldforce

This week, I want to look at what that pack of bastards at Fieldforce have suggested doing to thousands of defenceless participants in the Green Loans Program. (With apologies to Mr Littlemore QC for the paraphrasing, of course.)

To those involved in the federal government's now-misleadingly-named Green Loans Program, the story of Fieldforce Services is quite well-known. Fieldforce is a business unit of UXC, a services company founded by Geoff Lord, formerly of Elders and now Chairman and CEO of the Belgravia Group, and also operates the Enviro Saver brand. The company shot to fame earlier this year, upon the revelation that they had established a direct link to the assessment booking system, while other assessors spent hours at a time barging into an overcrowded phone booking system.

It has not been revealed how and why such an agreement came to be in the first place. What is interesting is that assessors in general were promised an internet-based booking system, whereas Fieldforce is the only company that we know about so far that has enjoyed such a benefit. We do know, however, that until the restrictions put in place on 19 February 2010, the company was performing more than a quarter of all home assessments nationwide - some 6000 of the 23000 assessments conducted each week - despite employing fewer than one tenth of the assessor workforce.

Naturally, the restrictions on the number of assessments than any HSA can perform have hit Fieldforce as they have other businesses. This is particularly the case where the umbrella companies take a massive cut, often more than half, of the $200 payment for the job. Well, it just goes to show that the elephant in the living room is not confined to one corner.

On Monday, 29 Marc 2010, SmartCompany.com.au published an article stating that UXC, Fieldforce's parent company, has joined the call for compensation for HSAs disaffected by the changes to the GLP - in the form of a complete takeover of the program. Yes, really. UXC finance director Mark Hubbard has actually suggested a corporate takeover of the delivery of the GLP, with the restrictions announced in February being lifted.

The article contains some fascinating disclosures about the workings of the company. Of course, some are only elucidated through the ancient and under-utilised art of basic arithmetic, but just trust me on this.

Fieldforce takes a 60% slice of the payments to its subcontracted HSAs, leaving them with only $80 for each assessment they perform. This seems a large amount for a simple referral under any circumstances, but how can one conscionably accept that big a cut of the fee, when making the booking via their direct computer link to the booking system takes a matter of minutes? At least the individuals sitting on the phone for hours on end have earned theirs.

Furthermore, with the new rule limiting each HSA to five jobs per week (and only getting four on average), it's virtually impossible to make a living in what was advertised as a lucrative job. At $80 per assessment, an HSA subcontracted to Fieldforce would typically only earn $300, and certainly no more than $400, in a given week. That's hardly more than you'd get on NewStart, but on the plus side, you'd get to deal with people instead of Centrelink staff.

Fieldforce, though, has said that its assessors can earn up to $2000 per week. Using the power of simple arithmetic, this means conducting 25 assessments, or five a day. In fact, I have personally heard stories of HSAs being tasked at this rate but working seven days a week. With an assessment easily taking two hours - travel time between houses notwithstanding - either they're working their fingers to the bone at every waking moment, or they're doing a substandard job.

The mind boggles at the men in charge. Fieldforce is already the target of much ire from HSAs across the country, due to the sweet deal it scored from the government to create its own booking infrastructure. (Admittedly, this did cost them a million dollars, but when you're taking $120 from each assessor for each job, the system paid for itself in a matter of weeks.) In addition, the issues of flighty and haphazard assessments, performed by underpaid and poorly-trained subcontractors, are significant enough to cast an ominous shadow over the whole program, including its most honest contributors. For one company to exemplify virtually everything that has failed in the GLP is bad enough, but for the same company even to attempt to cry poor and to try selfishly to claim more of the territory for themselves is the height of arrogance.

Mark Hubbard, UXC's finance director, typifies the hypocrisy. SmartCompany quotes him as saying that:

"Removing the restrictions would be ideal. Part of the reason why they ran into trouble was because it was just open slather, and didn't control the ramifications of the scheme."

How can removing the restrictions be ideal, if the unrestricted nature of the program causes trouble? Actually, considering the source, that makes perfect sense.

*  *  *  *  *  *

The last two weeks have been pretty busy from the standpoint of the Green Loans Program, and I was going to write this week about the unanimity with which pressure is building against DCCEE to sort things out. Instead, I've devoted this time to hearing from the industry's greatest pariah. As much as I appreciate their support for the possibility of compensation, their proposals are entirely self-serving and antagonising to the wider workforce.

One aspect of the story that I am still chasing up is that Fieldforce may be one of several. On 10 March 2010, Senator Christine Milne suggested that there were five companies who had cosy arrangements with the government to deliver the Green Loans Program. I'm not aware of the names of the other four companies, nor do I understand the nature of their dealings with DEWHA; I have lodged a request with Senator Milne's office for clarification. If there is some truth to this, it would be unfair to single out Fieldforce, although if there were some truth to this, we would have a few extra directions in which to spread our outrage around.

I would hate to think that DCCEE would agree that this is how its contracted assessors should be treated. I think Senator Wong, now the minister in charge, has a good understanding of what we as HSAs feel should happen - she has even heard about that from ABSA, who haven't had the best track record for communication so far - but it is not at all clear yet what she will support. However, she is practically the only person whose opinion we haven't heard yet, and she's the one who will be making the decisions. Considering that apart from her Senate address on 10 March, there is not one mention of the Green Loans Program on the entire DCCEE site, I dare say it could take a while.

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