A stoush involving the remuneration of 700 school cleaners in Victoria is heading to court after the United Workers Union alleged the state’s government had failed the workers amid a chaotic contract changeover that throws them out of work on December 21.
The issues arose after outgoing contractor ISS chose to drop out of a one-year extension of its contract in Melbourne’s western and north-eastern suburbs. However, incoming contractors Tradeflex and Serco are not hiring cleaners to work until January 15, meaning that the 700 school cleaners could be without pay over the coming holiday period.
Despite some workers having 25 years of school cleaning experience, the incoming contractors have not automatically offered existing cleaners their jobs. Instead, they are forcing cleaners to do job interviews, cutting their existing pay rates and cutting hours – slashing up to $11,000 from already-low incomes while increasing workloads.
“The Deputy Premier has to get out of his air-conditioned office and understand what these workers are facing,” United Workers Union Property Services Director Lyndal Ryan said.
“Because of this bungled changeover workers are facing weeks without pay over Christmas, and drastic cuts to hours and pay even if they land a job.”
In a letter to Deputy Premier and Education Minister Ben Carroll, United Workers Union alleges the Victorian Government is “aware of, directed in and participated in” contraventions of Occupational Health and Safety laws and the Fair Work Act, with penalties of up to $187,800 for each breach.
The alleged Fair Work Act breaches centre on the failure of ISS – which is also facing potential court action from the union – to give workers redundancy payments because they were not being offered “acceptable employment”.
Tradeflex has not made firm offers of employment to the vast bulk of the 300 cleaners in its area, while those who have received offers from Serco are seeing drastic cuts to their hours, cutting shifts from six hours to three hours.
The union alleges shorter shifts offered by Serco to workers of only three hours likely breach Award minimum engagement periods. Alongside Tradeflex’s plan to deploy cleaners across multiple schools, the union argues both Serco’s and Tradeflex’s actions represent breaches of OH&S laws by cutting hours and imposing “unreasonable workloads” on school cleaners.
Ryan said the school cleaners, who are earning barely above the minimum wage, are being “thrown on the scrapheap” by the Victorian Government during a worsening cost-of-living crisis “in the hope that friends and family can lend a hand over the Christmas break.”
“And even when they return, their future is bleak. The hard-hearted treatment of these workers is exactly why we have been calling for an end to this race-to-the-bottom privatisation of Victorian school cleaning,” Ryan said.
“Cleaners should have safe, secure jobs so they can best serve their school communities.”
A Department of Education spokesperson said the Department is “actively working with current and incoming school cleaning service providers to ensure a smooth transition process for schools and cleaning staff”, adding that current arrangements are expected to be in place until late December 2024.
“We require all contracted cleaning service providers to fully comply with their obligations under the Fair Work Act.”