Writings: Biosecurity Qld sacks fire ant program whistle-blower

In August, Biosecurity Queensland sacked a diligent fire ant program field assistant. His sin was to call out program managers’ unfair treatment of workers and their practices of exposing workers to health risks – one time too many. Update: 8th December 2016: Since the whistle-blower was sacked, it looks like the old practices of flagrantly disregarding pest management regulations are back. Managers on the National Fire Ant Eradication Program have been out of their depth from the very beginning: struggling with a large, complex and expensive program. Managers out of their depth can become defensive, punitive and penny-pinching. This was the management culture that emerged at the beginning of the fire ant program and continues to this day. The Fire Ant Program is managed by Biosecurity Queensland which is a Division of the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries.

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The rush to get the National Fire Ant Eradication program started in 2001 came at the cost of finding the best people capable of managing a large, complex and expensive program. The first director was a senior executive in the then Department of Primary Industries with no experience in managing a workforce of four hundred blue-collar workers. Managers who are out of their depths can become controlling, punitive and penny-pinching, and that is exactly what happened.  

Reviewers of the program in 2003 said that management was chaotic: there was no sense of urgency and no sensible planning. Staff said that managers were old-fashioned leaders who demanded rather than earned respect. Auditors and program managers questioned the wisdom of running the program under-budget, to the tune of around $3.8m each year, when there were not enough staff to do the work and no proper safety equipment for field teams working in rough country.

The program’s punitive, penny-pinching management culture continued when the HR manager succeeded the first director and the most recent director came from the ranks of field coordinators. The reviewers of Biosecurity Queensland’s capability in 2015 observed that current leaders had come into their positions through incremental changes to their previous roles, rather than through any workforce planning process and the leadership team did not have the ability to manage the State’s current or future biosecurity needs because they could not plan strategically or work in a political environment. http://swepson.com.au/2016/06/07/biosecurity-queensland-incapable-now-and-in-the-future/

 Six and a half years ago, an enthusiastic fire ant fighter and strong union man joined the program as a field assistant. He became a well-known and out-spoken advocate for the fair and safe treatment of his fellow workers. With his enthusiasm for fighting fire ants, he jumped at the chance to train to become a licensed pest management technician when program managers made the offer to field assistants. They would then be able to join the program’s direct nest injection team.

This worker loved all aspects of being a pest management technician: from the practicalities of the direct nest injection work to the legal responsibilities that came with his license. With his new skills and new responsibilities he assumed that he would receive an increase in his salary – up to the level of the pest management technicians already employed on the program. But penny-pinching managers had no such intention. They planned to save about $8,250 on every new pest management technician each year. This worker would not accept this inequity and chose to return to his original position as a field assistant.  But he continued to pay his annual fees to maintain his license as a pest management technician and he continued to fight for fair pay for all pest management technicians. Eventually all pest management technicians, old ones and new ones, were put onto the same pay scale.

The next time this worker had to challenge program managers was in June 2011. They were inviting field assistants to become assistants to the pest management technicians: to mix chemicals, to treat nests, to sample nests, to maintain the spray units and the direct nest injection vehicle. Again, penny-pinching managers had no intention of paying field assistants any extra for this potentially dangerous work. And worse, it would have been a breach of the Pest Management Act to allow unlicensed workers to perform those very specific pest management activities.  So, he complained to his managers that this practice was illegal and threatened the health of staff. When they did nothing, he reported the practice to the Division of Environmental Health in the Health Department. The Health Department investigated and now only licensed pest management technician can perform specific pest management activities.  But challenging managers for a second time made this worker a marked man. ‘We know about you,’ one HR officer told him in front of a group of his peers.

He knew he was a marked man, but when in March he observed two unlicensed field assistants about to use the unwashed direct nest injection vehicle and be exposed to chemical residues, he assumed the old practices had returned and he felt he had to act.

He confronted the Team Leader who was responsible for the field assistants and the vehicle and asked him who had given the field staff permission to use it. The Team Leaders response was to tell him to go away and to mind his own business. He persisted and the Team Leader said that his boss, the Coordinator, had given his permission. This worker asked the Coordinator if this was true, which it was, so he reported the whole matter to the Operations Manager.

The response to this worker’s concern came in May in a letter from a Deputy-Director General: not saying that he intended to investigate a potential breach of the Pest Management Act and a potential threat to workers’ safety, but to ask this worker to show cause why he should not be disciplined for intimidating the Team Leader and challenging the authority of the Coordinator. This worker acknowledged that he did confront the Team Leader with a sense of outrage, but denied that he was abusive. And he did think the Coordinator might have felt challenged because he had potentially breached the Pest Management Act and had potentially put the welfare of staff at risk. The Deputy-Director General rejected this worker’s explanation of this situation in favour of the explanations of the Coordinator and the Team Leader which were corroborated by the two workers whose welfare had potentially been put at risk, but who, being on contract, depended on both the Coordinator and Team Leader for future work.

So, on 5th August, the Deputy-Director General sacked this worker without notice, because he could. He could, because after six and a half years this worker and his co-workers were still only temporary employees, which makes then cheaper to employ and easier to intimidate.  Because most of the workers on the National Fire Ant Eradication are now either temporary or on contract, the punitive, penny-pinching management culture of the National Fire Ant Eradication Program can continue.

 Up-date 8th December 2016

ABC TV interviewed the CEO of the Invasive Species Council on a new housing estate in south-east Queensland that is infested with fire ants. Television footage of the interview shows fire ants running out of a nest and two pest management technicians injecting a fire ant nest with pesticide.

The technician who is injecting the nest is wearing a protective overall and a pesticide protective face mask. The technician who is about to dig up the pesticide soaked nest is not. That man is the leader of the Direct Nest Injection team and knows that it is against pest management regulations to not wear protective equipment when using a pesticide.

Since the whistle-blower was sacked in August 2016, it looks like the old practices of flagrantly disregarding pest management regulations are back. The Team Leader exposed himself to pesticide fumes and anyone else, staff or visitor, who peered into that nest without a face-mask.

Any pest management technician working on the fire ant program will know that if they complain about breaches of pest management regulation that puts their health and safety, or the safety of others, at risk, they too will be sacked.