By Clay Lucas: Workplace Editor for The Age
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''.