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Thursday, 28 March 1957

Mr COSTA (Banks) .- I desire to bring to the notice of the House the shocking conditions obtaining in the mail branch at the General Post Office, in Sydney. The president and secretary of the Amalgamated Postal Workers Union of Australia, to which the employees in the mail branch belong, have sought the aid of Opposition members in an effort to impress the Government, the Postmaster-General (Mr. Davidson), and the PostmasterGeneral's Department with the frightfulness of the conditions of employment in the Sydney mail branch. They complain of insufficient space, lack of ventilation, poor lighting, and a shortage of staff. A considerable proportion of the staff is very inexperienced. This is due to no fault of the employees; there is another reason for it. The officials of the union have informed Opposition members that the position is going from bad to worse, and I think that, in some instances, this is admitted by the department. The union has complained about the position for a long time, and it claims that its protests appear to have been of no avail. The powers that be evidently have a genius for making excuses, and are ready with an excuse every time.

The mail branch has been housed in its present building for the last 27 years. The building was not originally constructed for use by the mail branch, which was formerly housed at Railway-square, in Sydney, in a building that now accommodates the Chief Parcels Office. The mail branch in Sydney handles more mail than does any other mail branch in Australia. As an overseas mail terminal, it handles a great deal of mail matter that goes to the mail branches in the other capital cities. Until recently, there were fewer than 1,000 employees in the Sydney mail branch. There are now more than 2,000, and at Christmas time more than 3,000 workers will be crammed into this unsuitable building. Experts say that, with so many employees working in the building, the average air space for each is only one-third of the amount required by health regulations. There is a very serious dust problem also, largely because the building was not constructed for the purpose for which it is now being used and no provision has been made for proper methods of removing dust. Honorable members may not know that the abrasion of mail in bags in transit causes a lot of dust to collect, and the dust clouds that arise when bags of mail are emptied constitute a serious health hazard. These conditions would not be tolerated in private establishments, but they are permitted in the Sydney mail branch because government institutions, both Commonwealth and State, are not subject to the health and industrial regulations that apply to other establishments.

I should like to discuss the staff position in more detail. The Superintendent of Mails in Sydney said, only recently, that 90 per cent, of the staff had been employed for more than one year, 80 per cent, for more than two years, and 50 per cent, for more than five years. These figures indicate that the labour turn-over of the total staff is at least 50 per cent, every five years, and that if 1,000 new employees began duty on 1st January, very many of them would have left by the end of the year. The heavy labour turn-over entails heavy expenditure on a large permanent training staff of 200 employees in the training school in order to train replacements to maintain the required staff strength of 2,000. There are cogent reasons for the heavy staff turnover. The union says that the main two reasons are that the employees are poorly paid and that their working conditions are very bad.

Mr Ward - How long has the Minister known about the situation?

Mr COSTA - Ever since he has been a Minister; and his predecessor knew about it, too, because it is a long-standing complaint. As we know, the wage paid to postal employees is very low. Their basic wage has been frozen by the Commonwealth Government and, because of that, State employees in Tasmania are receiving £1 8s. 6d. more than is being paid to postal employees engaged in the Mail Branch. That is why this tremendous turnover of labour prevails. It is having the effect that there are serious delays to mails. Firstclass mail matter has been delayed, but there has been a very extensive delay in regard to second-class mail matter. We have evidence that it has been laid aside for periods up to two weeks because there is not sufficient staff to handle it. We have evidence that even express air mail is being delayed. Also, if mail going to Sydney containing mail orders, were attended to expeditiously, the orders could be returned on the same ship, but because of the serious delay in the Sydney Mail Branch which prevents this correspondence from getting to its destination on time, the return orders miss the ship. .

I have a letter from the secretary of the union, and I should like to read portions of it as this is a very serious matter. He writes -

During the Xmas Tush two of our members dropped dead in the overcrowded Mail Branch at the G.P.O., which was never designed to accommodate 3,000 men in the one department. Further, no Coroner's Inquest was held concerning these deaths, but instead the C.M.O. issued a certificate of death for both men, to the effect that death was due to Coronary Occlusion. This was rather odd as the same C.M.O. had recently passed one man physically fit for permanency.

The public and the business community - particularly the little men - are suffering from this bedlam state of affairs in the Mail Branch.

Second-class mail matter, for lack of staff and handling space, is being put aside for up to a fortnight before it is sorted for delivery. This second-class mail matter, in addition to overseas periodicals, includes business orders from the islands around Australia. Island steamers are usually in port long enough to take back replies to these orders, but the fortnight lag in delivery means that boat connexions are missed and business transactions of island traders may be held up for months.

There should be a full-scale inquiry into the handling of mail in Sydney. The inside story of muddling, forced on the Postal Department by a miserable, penny-pinching Federal Government, would shock the public.

Not only the Postal Workers' Union, but departmental heads, are fearful of a breakdown of mail handling facilities, unless something is done about the slum conditions at the General Post Office pending the construction of a new Mail Branch building, instead of providing makeshift, temporary subsidiary mail branches like the one at Hiles-street, Alexandria, for the handling of Inter-State and Overseas Mail.

To sum up, something must be done about this urgent problem.

Regarding the proposed new building, I brought that matter to the Minister's notice a considerable time ago. It had been planned as far back as 1951, but there does not seem to be any move in the matter. Every time any inquiry is made the answer is that it is expected a commencement will be made in eighteen months' time. That is the position. It is expected that this very urgent building, which will take many years to build and will cost from £4,000,000 to £5,000,000 will not be commenced for another eighteen months. The union officials, of course, are very concerned about what is going to transpire between now and the lime this necessary building is completed.

Mr SPEAKER -Order! The honorable member's time has expired.

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