Clean Start: A Fair Deal for Cleaners

Dirty work in the cleaning industry

By Clay Lucas: Workplace Editor for The Age<p>

A comprehensive investigation of conditions for international students who clean Melbourne's office towers has found them subject to exploitation, extreme  job insecurity and abuse.

A Dirty Business, to be released on Thursday by union United Voice,  finds  international students have become an ''invisible mainstay'' of  Melbourne's cleaning industry.

The report took seven months to research and write and was based on  interviews with almost 250 cleaners. Researchers used some covert methods to  investigate the secretive  industry.

It found international students   were largely unaware of their workplace  rights, and as a result were being systematically underpaid - some by up to  $15,000 a year.

The report also found some office tower owners were being ''defrauded'' of up  to $150,000 a year by cleaning firms promising to pay their staff $24 an hour  but instead paying about  $15.

''Inside our grandest, shiniest office towers there is a secret world rife  with bullying, intimidation and fear,'' the union's Victorian secretary, Jess  Walsh, said.

One cleaner, named in the report as Preeta, said she worked in the evening at  a central Melbourne office block. She said she worked alongside ‘‘white people’’  who were paid by a main contractor, while the mostly Asian casual cleaning staff  worked for a subcontractor who paid them less.

‘‘The Asian people and those from the poor countries, they are working for  the subcontractor. The white people, actually whoever is the nationality of  owners of the main company, they straight away are paid from the main company –  but not us,’’ she said.

‘‘Sometimes when the union went to the building our supervisor told us ...  not talk to them.’’

Another cleaner, identified only as Sarita in the report, said she also  worked in a city office building. She said her supervisor often threatened and  swore at her.

‘‘He would say things like; ‘‘You f---ing girl – clean it up properly,  otherwise I sack you’.’’

Sarita said she was paid $17 an hour, later increased to $18, for evening  cleaning work.

More than half the cleaners  in office towers are students from India, Sri  Lanka, Bangladesh or Colombia. Each international student contributes $30,000 to  the  economy, and for every student who comes to Australia, about  one-third of  a full-time job is created, a  Universities Australia study found.

Thomson Ch'ng, the national president of the Council of International  Students Australia, said employment issues arose  regularly for recently arrived  students ''because of the lack of information, and understanding'' of rules.

''It makes [students] vulnerable and an easy target for employers looking to  exploit and cheat the system,'' he said.

Mr Ch'ng said educational institutions needed to do more  when  students   first arrived  so they knew their workplace rights, and to report exploitation  by employers.

Under the Clean Start  industrial agreement  negotiated by United Voice with  the city's big cleaning companies in 2009, cleaners at  the  100 biggest office  towers are meant to be paid $24.35 for evening work.

But the report finds that, by subcontracting out  services, many big cleaning  firms are maximising their profits or absolving themselves of responsibility for  ensuring workers are treated properly.

Meanwhile, cleaners are being underpaid and get no superannuation or penalty  pay.

Ms Walsh said those  international students  were being ''outrageously  underpaid, and shockingly abused - they are being spoken to with abusive  language, they are being threatened with the sack on a regular basis, and they  are being told not to talk to the union''.

Read the Report


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