A LABYRINTH OF NINCOMPOOPS

Oh, how we love our telcos, those glitteringly efficient providers of telephone and internet services that have contrived to provide, as only private enterprise can, a service about which almost everyone is talking … or hanging on the phone to the telecoms ombudsman, waiting to talk.

Here are the experiences of ‘The Orbiting Eye’ with two Australian telcos.

IT IS 2010 and I have taken a year’s research leave in Australia. I’ve found a place in the country, in a town on a railway line not too far from Melbourne, and head to 3G, a subsidiary of Vodafone, for an internet connection. The young men and women are charming. In no time at all I have signed up and have the connection.

What they don’t tell me is that they have virtually no network outside Melbourne. Three weeks later, realising that I am on global roaming, I close the account and pay whatever is owing. A little while later I receive a letter acknowledging that the final bill has been paid and the account closed.

Some time later – a month, six weeks, I can’t remember – I get a letter from a debt collector demanding the payment of close to $400, or else. Perhaps you can see what is coming. I write to them pointing out what I have just pointed out to you, the reader, and a week or 10 days later receive another letter, threatening to destroy my credit rating unless I cough up.

voda-3I write to them asking when and how this amount was incurred. Another demanding letter arrives, then another. Vodafone has (or had) no telephone number to deal with such problems, so I write to a post office box number in Queensland, the postal address given.

No reply. I reply to Vodafone head office in Britain. No reply. In the meantime the demands continue to flow in from the debt collector. After about six months they send me proof of my debt, a recent statement repeating the amount allegedly owed plus interest, an earlier statement repeating the amount allegedly owed plus interest and the original statement stating the original amount claimed but with no explanation of how and when the bill was run up.

I send off more letters. I now have a large dossier. With the debt collector still sending in the claim I contact a lawyer who finally manages to speak to someone online (in another country I think), who goes through the costs charged to me, including $50 for each SMS message sent. This person explains that the SMS service has been sub-contracted to another company but there is no explanation of why an SMS, unwanted and unrequested by me, should cost $50.

These events roll on for about nine months. I have spent scores of hours on this: my research program has been disrupted and my friend the lawyer has spent hours of her own time. Overall, at reasonable professional rates, Vodafone has cost us many thousands of dollars.

voda-2Eventually, unable to prove its case, Vodafone gives up. I am not surprised to learn that the company is the target of a class action launched in Sydney and based on the complaints of about 22,000 people. Borderline criminality is how I would describe the behaviour.

Complaints to the telecommunications ombudsman were not answered while a complaint launched in desperation to the government’s corporate regulator was eventually answered. I could practically see the person on the other end yawning at being bothered with such a petty complaint.

Telstra, the alternative, was a roundabout, a carousel, that left me giddy when I stepped off. The office was 100 metres down the road but there I was, told to ring this number, which I did, finding myself as a result talking to someone in India, who seemed to take offence when I asked why I had to call India when Telstra had an office a minute or two from my door.

The call involved transfers and long conversations with several other people, one of them in the wrong country for the service I wanted, but eventually I was hooked up. The experience was not as bad as Vodafone but then it’s hard to imagine anything could be. In telecommunications, as all Australians know, everything is relative.

In 2017, back in Melbourne, I went back to Telstra. In late October, heading overseas again, I called Telstra asking for my internet to be disconnected the day after I left the country. They cut it off the week before.

I walked down the street to the Telstra office to ask where my internet had gone. They told me I had been disconnected and for an explanation I should ring this number. I was back on the carousel, speaking not to a person but a recorded voice, which transferred me to the right department, sales.

I asked why I was in sales. I was told that because I needed to be reconnected I would have to buy a new bundle and pay a month in advance. When I said. “But this was your mistake”, the staff member checked at the original order and saw the disconnection was ordered for the 10th, but NBN had been told to disconnect on the 2nd. The only way to get back online was to buy a new bundle. Pointing out the unfairness of this, she did at least concede, “I can see where you’re coming from.”

telstra - connect logoWell, where does Telstra come from? Deep space? Some remote planet that has no understanding of life on Earth? Eventually, two days later, I was connected at no cost to me, only to receive an email from a Felicity telling me that my new bundle was on its way.

I replied instantly, saying I did not want or need a new bundle (a stiff drink would have been more like it), receiving a response that “this mail box is no longer being monitored”. A phone number was given but I simply could not climb on the carousel again. Two days later the bundle arrived. Not wanting it, not needing it, not having asked for it, I asked the courier to take it back.

Receiving a phone letter from the complaints section later I had to point that I had not been complaining but simply wanted my internet connection resumed. I told her that she was nice, that all the front people to whom I spoke were very pleasant, but that the Telstra system was deeply screwed.

Telstra makes a lot of money – $3.9 billion for the past financial year – but this was a bad result, a profit drop of 32.7% on the previous year. Dividends were cut and the value of shares dropped. Could any of this have anything to with the problems millions of customers across Australia experience every day of the week, rich and poor and all those in between, as they spend hours of their time trying to get something done?

The hunt for profit is not merely greedy but avaricious. Like the industrial revolution of the early 19th century, the digital revolution works for the wealthy. The corporations are able to dispense with armies of human labour, irrespective of the cost to the country through financial support for the newly unemployed and their families.

You have probably heard that the National Australia Bank plans to shed 6000 jobs in the next three years, replacing them with 2000 “digitally focussed” positions. The jobs don’t have to go. The bank just wants to make more money, as if the 2017 profit of $5.3 billion is not enough. The ANZ bank made $6.94 billion, Westpac $8.1 billion and the Commonwealth Bank $9.93 billion, all of this in a country of just 24 million people.

The image banks like to project of being safe and reliable conceals the true nature of their operations. In 2016 the Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC) announced that it was taking legal action against the NAB, Westpac and the ANZ bank for market manipulation through rate rigging. In a recorded conversation Westpac’s manager of group treasury, Colin Roden, remarked to a colleague that “We made about $12 million today … that’s what you’d call a good day, right?”

Yes, Col, every pensioner in the country trying to live on $800 a fortnight would agree that it was indeed a good day. But not for them.

The blog site Creditcardcompare.com.au has published statistics showing that the big four banks control 88% of residential mortgages, 53% of life insurance premiums, 57.3% of retail investment funds and 80% of deposits, compared to the 30% of deposits held by the six biggest US banks.

And lest you are tempted to think, “Well, at least these are Australian banks so the profits stay here”, consider the figures for foreign ownership of the shares in these banks:

■ The British-based HSBC Bank custodian nominee company (representing an unstated number of HSBC shareholders) owns 16.91% of Westpac shares, 16.83% of NAB, 18.48% of ANZ and 14.8% of CBA.

■ The J.P. Morgan nominee company owns 12.75% of Westpac shares, 12.03% of NAB, 14.4% of ANZ and 11.57% of CBA.

■ The National nominee company owns 9.93% of Westpac shares, 10.14% of NAB, 11.76% of ANZ and 8.5% of CBA.

■ The Citicorp nominee company owns 4.94% of Westpac shares, 4% of NAB, 4.15% of ANZ and 4.47% of CBA.

These figures indicate that for two banks alone, just over 44% of Westpac shares and 43% of NAB shares are foreign-owned. At the same time it is the shareholders, whoever they might be, who vote, not these banks, and thus are in a position to exercise control over the big four Australian banks, depending on the size of their holding.

Banking and communications are to Australia what rubber was to the Congo, tin to Bolivia and gold to the Klondike in the 19th century. Dizzying amounts of money are being made, beyond the ken of the native crouching in the bushes but at his expense.

They are all in on it, the entire corporate sector, feasting at the trough, backed, encouraged and protected by the government and setting an example others are following, all the way down to the bottom of the pyramid, where you goggle at the amount charged by the plumber for fixing your drains. This is the example set for young people: take what you can while you can and as much as you can.

In the past Australians had government institutions, the SEC, Gas and Fuel, the PMG, developed over a century, established with your tax money, delivering services effectively and efficiently, speaking to people across counters and fixing problems quickly. In the space of a decade, deregulation, introduced not by the Liberals but by the Keating Labor government, accounted for just about all of them.

Privatisation and the sale of government services and infrastructure has led to vast amounts of money simply being ladled from your pocket into the pockets of corporations, foreign and domestic: since everyone needs water, gas, electricity, banking services and telecommunications, they operate at no risk to themselves.

They have no bottom line, because profit has no bottom line. What they do have is an escape route. If another global financial crisis happens, watch them run to the government for support, as they, and banks and other financial institutions across the world did in the 2008 GFC meltdown.

Like all labyrinths, the labyrinth of corporate nincompoops has so many twists, turns and dead ends that you begin to think that there is no exit and you are stuck inside forever. Well, Jeremy Corbyn has a program for renationalisation in Britain. That might be the exit; any UK move could be examined and perhaps followed here, so that the corporate fleas can be shaken out of the blanket.

All this began with an account of having to deal with Vodafone, which reminds me: I forgot to say what a bunch of bastards I think they are.