‘Appalling’ treatment of staff as privateer closes two hospitals in Australia

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Hundreds of staff working at two of Australia’s private hospitals set to be closed over the next few weeks were notified of the closures via text message just hours after the company’s statement was posted to the stock exchange, says the Health Workers Union (HWU).

Geelong Private Hospital – formerly known as Baxter House – and Cotham Private Hospital in Kew will both be closed after health privateer Healthscope announced it last week, accusing them of ‘underperforming’ and claiming it is ‘no longer viable’ to keep them running. The closures will lead to the loss of 417 jobs across the two institutions.

Diana Asmar from the Victorian branch of the Health Workers Union accused Healthscope of putting the interests of shareholders ahead of the welfare of staff. ‘The staff weren’t notified until an SMS went out at 12.15pm today. The staff were finding out through the media and us, that’s how appalling it is. ‘And that was only the people with mobile numbers – not everyone has been notified yet. It’s disgusting,’ she said. Asmar said roughly 150 HWU members are affected.

‘In the impact statement, (Healthscope) told them they would be employed in different places – that’s down in Queensland, the Gold Coast, or in Melbourne, not in Geelong.

‘The only similarity between Geelong and the Gold Coast is the beaches. They aren’t going to drive 2000km to work,’ she said.

The company has promised to try and redeploy staff to other Healthscope facilities where possible.

‘We are aware that this will be a very difficult time for our staff and we are working proactively with them to explore redeployment and relocation opportunities at other Healthscope locations,’ chief executive Gordon Ballantyne said in a statement.

Healthscope says it is in the process of contacting patients who are currently at the hospital or have future treatment planned, to try and ensure their care is not impacted. Bernice Hitchins, who had travelled from Drouin to Kew on Tuesday afternoon to attend her first appointment with a specialist at Cotham Hospital, said she was disappointed to hear it would close, as she will have to travel see a specialist in future. ‘I’m very sad, because to go to the Royal Melbourne is just too far,’ she said.

Health Workers Union organiser Ray Collins said many of the hospital’s employees such as cleaners, kitchen staff and administrative staff, have been there so long they had worked under three successive owners. Collins said employees would be offered redeployment or redundancy, but he feared very few were likely to be offered another role within the organisation.

He said he had heard rumours in recent months about job losses, but that management had dismissed them. ‘The staff have been worried for months,’ he said. In the statement, Healthscope said a review of the company’s 45 hospitals found its Victorian hospital portfolio had ‘underperformed relative to the rest of the group.

‘We conducted an exhaustive evaluation of alternatives but unfortunately it is simply not viable to continue operations into the future,’ said Ballantyne. He said the closure of Geelong Private Hospital reflected a ‘changed healthcare environment in Geelong and the surrounding region’. The health privateer boss claimed there is ‘an oversupply of capacity with intense competition’ in Victoria.

However, the Victorian branch of the Australian Nursing & Midwifery Federation, which represents almost 3,000 nurses, midwives and carers at Victorian Healthscope sites, has been seeking urgent information about mass redundancies from the company for more than a month. Secretary of the federation’s Victorian branch Lisa Fitzpatrick said: ‘The closure of these health facilities and the loss of hundreds of jobs are incredibly distressing for our members and their families.

‘This distress has been compounded by rumours that a number of Healthscope facilities are to close.’

Healthscope, a Melbourne-based company, runs 19 hospitals in Victoria, including Frankston Private Hospital, Ringwood Private Hospital, and La Trobe Private Hospital in Bundoora.

Opposition health spokeswoman Mary Wooldridge said she fears the impending closure of the Geelong hospital will put more stress on the public hospital system. ‘Barwon Health is already bursting at the seams, so the Health Minister needs to ensure that the closure of Geelong Private does not result in reduced access or quality of care at the public hospital,’ Wooldridge said. The Geelong hospital, opened in 1998, has 107 beds and employs 293 people who provide acute surgical, cardiac and medical care. Cotham Private Hospital, opened in 1970, has 60 patient beds and a 12-bed rehab programme, and employs 124 people.

• One of the state’s biggest unions has called on the McGowan government to follow a Victorian Labour Party commitment and introduce 20-year jail sentences and multi-million-dollar fines for employers who fail to prevent workplace deaths. On Saturday Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews announced they would introduce industrial manslaughter legislation if re-elected in November.

The legislation would create criminal offences for workplace deaths, allowing employers to be fined almost $16 million for a death under their watch or jailed for up to 20 years. Queensland introduced similar laws earlier this year.

CFMEU (Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union) Western Australia state secretary Mick Buchan called on the WA government to follow the lead of Victoria and introduce industrial manslaughter legislation ‘urgently’. ‘We have seen decisive action from Premier Daniel Andrews and his Victorian state government who recognise that the rate of workplace deaths cannot continue and that current deterrents such as fines have no effect in providing safer workplaces or the prevention of unnecessary accidents,’ he said.

According to Department of Mines, Industry Regulation and Safety figures, there were 210 work-related fatalities between 2006-07 and 2016-17. These figures included the deaths of two Irish workmates Gerry Bradley, 27, and Joe McDermott, 24, at a Jaxon Construction East Perth worksite in 2015. The workers were crushed by huge unsecured concrete panels.

Trucking company Axedale Holdings, trading as Shaw’s Cartage Contractors, was fined $160,000 earlier this month for the deaths. Under WA workplace safety legislation, the most an individual can be fined for a serious breach of the legislation is $250,000 for a first offence and two years imprisonment. A business can be fined $500,000 for a first offence or $625,000 for a subsequent offence.

Buchan said fines do not ensure offenders restructure their workplace to comply with workplace health and safety standards and do not impact the behaviour of the responsible managers.

He said the state government should make industrial manslaughter an offence under the criminal code in their first term.

• In a major victory for Australian workers, charges against two CFMEU Victorian Construction officials were dramatically dropped at the Melbourne Magistrate’s Court earlier this month. The CFMEU welcomed the decision by the Director of Public Prosecutions to withdraw blackmail charges against Victorian Branch officials Shaun Reardon and John Setka.

Setka and Reardon said: ‘This decision is a major victory for all workers in this country. ‘It is difficult to see this case as anything other than a conspiracy among those with vested interests in ensuring workers in this country are not adequately represented. ‘This case was the culmination of a political witch-hunt against unions driven by Liberal Governments for over four years.

‘This court case has nothing to do with workers safety or rights, it’s always been about criminalising unions in this country. ‘This matter should never have made it to court and we are grateful the DPP has now recognised that. ‘These charges were laid on the basis of a complaint to the Heydon Royal Commission. It’s extraordinary that the original complainants were never interviewed before the decision to press charges.

‘It emerged during the committal hearing that the witness statements to the Royal Commission that these charges were based on had been changed 41 times in one case and 18 in another.

‘The CFMEU’s campaign was about saving lives. And our penalty for that is to be targeted, prosecuted and fined by government agencies and the regulators.’