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Why cleaners should not lose lose a quarter of their weekly wages

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 7 Jul 2014

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (16:49):  Dishonesty is clearly in the eye of the beholder it seems to me. It is hard to know who the Abbott government holds in more contempt-this parliament or the cleaners who clean it. No doubt the true answer is that the Prime Minister and the Minister for Employment, Senator Eric Abetz, hold both in equal contempt. How the Prime Minister and Senator Abetz have treated cleaners and the Senate has been widely described as shoddy, secretive, dishonest, sneaky, low and underhanded. In fact, it seems to me these descriptions perfectly apply to what we are seeing of the Abbott government as a whole when it comes to the budget and to the information available about asylum seekers. Now it is increasingly evident that this is how they are treating the Australian public and how they have treated the Senate in relation to this cleaning issue.

First the Prime Minister promised not to cut the pay of cleaners. Then, breaking his word, he and Senator Abetz sneaked through these changes, buried in the 9,500 regulations to go under Prime Minister Tony Abbott's so-called 'red tape repeal day', on Wednesday. Buried in more than 50,000 pages of regulations and acts of parliament to be scrapped was the revelation that from 1 July the government would abolish the Commonwealth Cleaning Services Guidelines for cleaners employed on government contracts.

In the last sitting period the Senate rightly voted to protect the Commonwealth Cleaning Services Guidelines, which ensure fair pay and working conditions for cleaners working in Commonwealth buildings. However, in another low point for this government, Senator Abetz secretly moved to abolish the guidelines and rip away more than 20 per cent of the cleaners' wages by reducing their minimum wage from $22.02 per hour to $17.49 per hour, which can amount to $172 per week.

This appears to be a deliberate attempt by Senator Abetz to subvert the parliamentary process. While the parliament was debating this matter, the government was secretly subverting it. Secrecy and subversion is becoming a hallmark of this government, and so is rank dishonesty. The Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, told parliament on 16 June:

I want to make it absolutely crystal clear that no cleaner's pay is reduced.

But, as he and Senator Abetz know full well, that is not the case. These cleaners, some of the country's lowest paid workers, could lose almost a quarter of their weekly wages under these changes quietly introduced by the Abbott government. Thousands of workers will be hit by the changes, which will strip between $172 and $225 a week from the pockets of full-time contract cleaners who clean government buildings.

The guidelines are a form of collective bargaining that lift the wages of workers working for businesses that win government cleaning contracts by between $4.53 and $5.93 an hour above the minimum wage-and the minimum wage is very minimum. This brings their weekly wage from $664 to $836 for a 38-hour week for level-1 workers and from $724 to $950 a week for level-3 workers. These are not princely sums of money-with the wages we earn in this place we are very aware of that-and there can be no rationale for reducing them further. The Greens believe in fair work, we believe in a fair country and we believe in looking after those people who are on low incomes. Unlike this government, we do not believe in taking from the 'have-nots' and giving to the 'haves'.

The Commonwealth Cleaning Services Guidelines were established to ensure that the cleaners of government buildings are protected and receive fair pay and working conditions. This was because of the woeful and well-documented history of underpayment, exploitation and unsafe work practices in the cleaning industry. A 2010 Fair Work Ombudsman's audit of cleaning contractors found that 40 per cent of audited businesses did not comply with workplace laws and it recovered almost $500,000 for 934 underpaid workers. But, with those changes being scrapped, cleaners working on government jobs could again be reduced to being paid at the lowly award rate, thus reducing their already low pay of $836 for a 38-hour week to $664. Well, now, what do you know? Senator Abetz is dialling back the clock to reintroduce these conditions for some of the lowest paid people in Australia. In his perverse universe it is those who are already better off who are entitled to extra benefits, tax breaks and advantages, not those who are some of the lowest paid in the country.

All this is at a time when income and wealth inequality is growing globally and in Australia. The ABS statistics for 2011-12 reveal that the wealthiest 20 per cent of Australian households had a net worth that was 68 times as high as that of the least wealthy 20 per cent, yet we have a government that is intent on reducing those low-paid workers' wages even more.

The Prime Minister knows very well that the removal of the guidelines from 1 July this year will leave cleaners vulnerable to pay cuts when current cleaning contracts expire and government agencies go out to tender. So, in reality, the Prime Minister and Senator Abetz know very well that, despite the Prime Minister's assurance, the government will run open tenders for future cleaning service contracts, with absolutely no specification for above-award wages. It says a lot about the Abbott government that it is moving to cut the already low pay of the very cleaners who are cleaning the offices of the Prime Minister and Senator Abetz. We in this place know the work the cleaners do. We know they are the people we greet as we come in to work at the break of day. We know the value they provide in keeping our offices clean. This is yet another broken promise to add to the Prime Minister's growing list of untruths. The Prime Minister has deceived cleaners and he has deceived the public yet again.

The Commonwealth Cleaning Services Guidelines prescribed minimum hourly base rates of pay. They prevented Australian government agencies from accepting any new tender for cleaning services unless the tenderer agreed to comply with the guidelines, including paying employees no less than the prescribed above-award wage rates. The Greens believe that the removal of the guidelines will encourage future tenderers to bid at only the award rate in order to secure the cleaning contract. This means a return to what always happens to exposed and low-paid workers: cheap is good. It will mean those on the lowest salaries will be exploited.

It is typical of the Abbott government-which only thinks in terms of, 'Is this good for the one per cent?-that, in trying to justify his sneaky repealing of this regulation, he reportedly said that it was costing suppliers $5 million a year. That additional cost put food on the table for some of the lowest paid people in the country. Senator Abetz calls that red tape. The cleaners and their families know that this helps them to make ends meet and makes the difference between living above the poverty line or falling below it. Just like the rest of the Abbott budget, these impending wage cuts will make life harder for the 'have-nots', while the Abbott government are helping make life much easier and better for the 'haves', their one per cent barrackers.

The workers at Parliament House now face the likelihood of a pay cut when the contract is up for renewal. I understand that, at a rally of the hard-pressed cleaners outside parliament to protest these cuts, the United Voice union rightly named the Prime Minister as the winner of its 2014 'golden toilet brush award', which recognises 'the individual, company or organisation that has done least in the past year to give cleaners a fair go'. Not a very meritorious award to win, I would have thought.

The Greens condemn the repealing of the Commonwealth Cleaning Services Guidelines 2012. The Greens condemn the way that these guidelines were repealed, which was low, dishonest and undemocratic. And the Greens condemn the Minister for Employment, Senator Eric Abetz, for doing both, because he was responsible for repealing these guidelines and he was responsible for the way they were repealed. The Greens stand with our cleaners and we will fight for fair pay for those on low incomes. Unlike the Abbott government, who look after their mates, the Greens stand for the 99 per cent in Australia.

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