AS PART of its privatisation plan, the NSW government wants to sell off the state’s retail electricity arm. But, whatever their claims, the evidence from the recently completed retail privatisation in Queensland shows this will be a disaster for energy workers and the public.

On March 27, the final phase of retail privatisation was completed when private providers Origin and AGL took over administration of customer accounts. Customers Energex retail accounts were originally sold to AGL and Origin energy in January 2007 for just over $3 billion.

From July 2007, retail of electricity and gas in south-east Queensland was completely opened up to free market competition. Over 25 private companies began competing with AGL and Origin to sign up electricity users to market contracts. Both workers and customers have lost out. The QSU (a part of the Australian Services Union, or ASU), which covers customer service and administration workers, did not fight to stop the privatisation. As a result more than 165 Energex workers lost their jobs on March 27, while many more staff who left over the previous months were not replaced.

Origin and AGL customer staff taking over from Energex workers are paid up to $17,000 less per year, are less unionised, have a higher workload and less job security.

Under the new private providers fines and penalties have skyrocketed. For non-contract Origin and AGL customers, the hand-over on March 27 means the introduction, for the first time, of late payment fees and moving house fees as well as less time for billing extensions. It means faster electricity disconnections when accounts are in debt.

For those signed up to market contracts, privatisation means unregulated electricity prices that can fluctuate to up to five times the cost of government controlled rates, and a raft of other fees. Some contracts contain fine print requiring customers to continue to pay for electricity for the length of their contract, even if they move house and have a year or more still to run!

The Queensland Energy Ombudsman, created by the state government only last year, has already dealt with 3786 disputes-and the number is continually rising. The story of Queensland retail privatisation is yet another reason to make sure the same thing does not happen in NSW.

By Emma Tovell

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