A Canberra-based cleaning company, which was contracted to clean 10 public schools in the ACT, has been found guilty of Fair Work Act breaches for underpayments.
United Voice launched the case against Philip Cleaning Services on behalf of 22 workers in 2015, alleging in court documents that some of the cleaners were owed almost $25,000.
Of the 22 workers, 19 are S’gaw Karen refugees from Myanmar and Thailand, who spent two decades in refugee camps in Thailand before being resettled in Australia.
According to United Voice, the permanent part-time school cleaners were pressured into signing contracts they did not understand, variously paid from different business entities (without explanation either to the workers or the ACT Government) and routinely exposed to unsafe working conditions.
In court, evidence from Phillip Cleaning Services was labelled “inconsistent and unbelievable” with the judge ruling on several contraventions of the Fair Work Act.
The judge also stated that “the amount of money involved is not a good measure of the importance of a claim of this kind”.The judgement stated that no employee was given the opportunity to work in accordance with their legal rights.
The cleaners were not paid during school holiday periods, were denied the opportunity to work during the school holidays, paid out all their annual leave entitlements in December whether they wanted to take annual leave or not, rostered ad-hoc (both hours and location), had no provisions for language skills, were provided with no off-site inductions, had to train each other unpaid and haphazardly provided with payslips.
The judge also ordered that the judgement be forwarded to the Director-General of the ACT Education Directorate.
Lyndal Ryan, United Voice ACT Branch Secretary, said: “We are delighted with the win for claims for underpayment and misrepresentation awarded today. These workers had their employment rights trashed and were taken advantage of by Phillip Cleaning Services. They were underpaid, misled with dodgy business practices, and exposed to chemicals without the correct safety equipment.
“I congratulate our members for fighting this long battle over the past two years for their entitlements; they wanted their truth to be told. It is shocking that refugees settled in Australia after two decades in refugee camps were treated so appallingly in an Australian workplace.”
The workers are owed as much as $300,000 – penalties will be imposed and the maximum penalty is in the order of $383,888.
Spokesperson for the group of school cleaners, Htoo Ywai, said: “We have been through a lot together. But we never let go of each other, even when things get really hard because we know together, in unity, we can fight for our rights.”
Last year, the ACT Government came under fire for renewing its contract with Phillips Cleaning Services amid claims of underpayments.
Phillip Cleaning Services currently still holds public school contracts with the ACT Government. When asked if the Education Directorate would continue its contracts, an Education Directorate spokesperson told INCLEAN “the Directorate needs time to consider the judgement and as such no further comment will be provided”.
INCLEAN contacted Phillip Cleaning Services for comment but did not respond prior to publication, however, the company has previously denied the underpayment and mistreatment claims. A spokesperson told Fairfax Media the company would consider appealing the court’s decision.
The ruling also follows the recent move by the ACT Government to change how school cleaning contracts are awarded and introduce tighter monitoring of contractors.