The Telecommunications Hardship Forum is the third in a series of financial hardship forums that FCVic has run to promote engagement between industry representatives and financial counsellors in Victoria. FCVic values this interaction between telecommunication companies and financial counsellors, and we appreciate the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) assisting us to develop this forum.
The Forum provided the opportunity for everyone to get together and to scope out how the different sectors are managing the unfolding hardship impacts of COVID-19. As Victoria gets back to a more normal way of living, we will begin to see more of the impacts the pandemic has had on our community. Ultimately in March 2021, when Job Keeper and Job Seeker are further reduced; moratoriums and supports from rental and banking industries all but disappear; people are going to be finding it harder and harder to cope with loss of employment. These interactions with industry are essential to developing communication and an understanding of how good practices can be developed to support people doing it tough.
It was acknowledged during the Forum that telecommunication services have changed radically over the past 10 years. The telephone is an essential service. People’s access to telecommunications is really important, as too are hardship provisions – particularly for those who may be systemically dispersed because of poverty and credit ratings, or default notices that are inhibiting them from obtaining a certain type – or a more affordable – service. With the diminishing use of landline phones, mobiles are a priority service for keeping everyone connected.
Financial counsellors expressed concerns that there are cohorts of clients that aren’t able to easily access telecommunications services – vulnerable groups and communities that are affected by mental health issues, or at risk of family violence, or older customers with large bills who need to remain connected with their families. Financial counsellors urged telecommunications companies to remember these vulnerable cohorts and communities. Initiatives to enable clients direct contact with their telephone provider, or if need be, through a financial counsellor or a social worker, are crucial.
Financial counsellors raised a series of questions to the telecommunications industry panel:
- What is hardship looking like for both customers in rural and the metropolitan areas?
- How are telecommunication companies helping people with mental health issues and family violence to stay connected and be on the right plan?
- What kinds of tailored response /options are on the table for customers from vulnerable cohorts?
- How are Telcos managing problems with sales teams approaching and creating unsustainable debt contract obligations?
- How are telecommunication companies responding to customers from CALD communities in both sales and hardship interactions?
The telecommunications companies described a range of hardship measures including stopping collection activities, vouchers, payment extensions, and waivers, which can be employed to assist customers in hardship. The representatives discussed their engagement with vulnerable customers including those with mental health, family violence and migrants and refugees who are experiencing ongoing hardship, loss of jobs and income during COVID-19.
FCVic appreciates the telecommunications company representatives for their time in looking at these issues with financial counsellors, and their willingness to collaborate on solutions for the future. It is important that this dialogue remains open to ensure the best outcomes for our mutual clients as we navigate the emerging effects of COVID-19.