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ABC News
ABC News

Schools close amid public sector strike action around Tasmania over pay and conditions

Inside Parliament House in Hobart, the debate focused on the public sector pay offer, cost of living and inflation — but outside, where thousands of striking workers gathered, there was far more at stake than the annual percentage increase.

Workers across a range of sectors detailed their workload stress, which they say is impacting services for Tasmanians, seeing workers abandon the public sector and resulting in staff shortages and excessive overtime.

Ambulance Tasmania paramedic Jan Bur said insecure work was increasingly a problem.

"We have got staff who are being treated like rubbish being put on one contract after another with no job security," he said.

"It's no hidden fact that we have the worst response times in Australia. This puts a lot of pressure on paramedics that are working as hard as they can to keep the system.

"We have huge amounts of overtime. Yesterday I had no meal at all because it was one job after another. [The government are] working off our goodwill, hoping we'll just keep the system carried through."

The strikes were Tasmania's largest public sector industrial action since 2019, when widespread protests resulted in the overturning of a cap on wage growth.

Since then, workers say conditions have continued to deteriorate.

Lindisfarne North Primary School teacher aide Ros Page said the pressure on teachers was immense, which was resulting in more pressure on teachers' aides (TA) and less time for children with special needs.

"We need more support in classes. I'm working in classes that need more TA support, teachers need a fair go, we need smaller class sizes," she said.

"The class sizes have gotten bigger, the teachers are run off their feet, as support staff we try and support the best support we can, but sometimes if you've got special needs students — two or three in class — it's hard to do that."

The commission of inquiry into the government's responses to child sexual abuse in Tasmania has also highlighted staffing issues in child safety, which are leaving staff with huge workloads and at-risk children with minimal support.

Senior child safety practitioner Marshall Callaghan said poor pay and conditions meant graduates were choosing not to go into the public sector, resulting in unfilled vacancies and growing workloads.

"People are just coming into our service at child safety and leaving within months, that's the way they're treated by government; they're not being respected," he said. 

"We can't retain people, they stay for a few months and go, and the government gives us the excuse that they're giving us plenty of full-time positions, but nothing to retain those people, so we're chronically underfunded.

"We've got virtually hundreds of children unallocated. They don't have a worker. That's a recipe for disaster."

During speeches, Premier Jeremy Rockliff was invited to spend a day in the workplaces of teachers, nurses and firefighters.

Government not budging on pay offer

Despite what was going on outside, the government remained unmoved.

Mr Rockliff reiterated that the third wages offer — of 3.5 per cent in the first year, 3 per cent in the next two years — was final.

He described the strikes as "disappointing" and said he was committed to negotiating "in good faith", prompting criticism from Labor that a government threat to not give backpay was not in the spirit of negotiation.

Labor and the unions have not put a percentage figure on their desired wage increases, but would like them to be a reflection of cost of living increases.

Inflation sits at 8.6 per cent, while electricity costs have increased 29.9 per cent and housing 14.3 per cent in 12 months.

Treasurer Michael Ferguson said increasing wages by the same amount of inflation would cost $2.4 billion, and that it would not be good economic policy.

"What will they say to those workers about Labor's position on wages policy? All they are prepared to say is, that we don't want to see your real wages go backwards, that's all they'll say," he said.

"If you're making a case that there should not be a real wage decrease, then you're actually making a case that wages policy should match inflation.

"Or to put it another way, you have an inflation spiral."

Labor argued that no one was arguing for wages to completely match inflation.

Shadow Treasurer Shane Broad said workplace conditions were also a key concern that was not being addressed.

"We see unsustainable workloads that Tasmanian public servants have to endure. Teacher stress leave is up 54 per cent; that is something to be ashamed of … 271 teachers quit last year, he said.

"That is because it's not just about pay, it's also about conditions."

"It is so bad that state schools — public schools — can't get relief teachers when they need it."

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