Victorian Education Minister calls for school cleaning audit

Education Minister orders audit into state school cleaning contracts amid reports cleaners have had pay and hours reduced under new system.

Victorian Education Minister James Merlino has ordered an audit into state government school cleaning contracts following reports cleaners have had their pay cut and hours reduced under the new cleaning contract reforms.

The reforms, first announced by the Education Minister in August 2017 in an effort to stamp out dodgy contractors and worker underpayments, took effect on 1 July 2018.

Under the new system, state schools in metropolitan Melbourne are divided into eight separate service areas, each of which is serviced by a single cleaning contractor appointed by the Victorian Department of Education and Training. The area-based cleaning model is understood to follow similar sets up in other states including NSW.

The eight zones have been awarded to five major contractors; Menzies Facility Services, Tradeflex, Shining Knight Facility Services, ISS Facility Services and Spotless Integrated Facilities Services.

It is understood prior to the newly installed model the department was monitoring around 100 large contracts, with schools required to appoint contractors approved by the department’s centralised School Cleaning Panel.

This week The Age reported on claims that cleaners’ conditions and pay have deteriorated under the new arrangements. The publication also reported parents were complaining about dirty conditions at their schools due to cleaning being significantly reduced, and that more than 120 principals have raised concerns with the Education Department.

Following the reports the Education Minister announced on Monday he has directed the department to investigate.

“We implemented our school cleaning reform to address systematic exploitation of workers. This is a big change and not easy – but absolutely necessary. We will address any implementation problems as they arise. One thing I will not accept are cleaners receiving a lower pay rate,” he stated.

“I have directed the Department to investigate the reports in The Age and audit all schools to ensure that no cleaners are paid less per hour and all schools get the appropriate hours to ensure industry standard cleaning.”

Audit welcomed by industry

George Stamas, president of the Building Services Contractors of Australia Association (BSCAA), said the association is in support of a strong audit approach.

“It’s disappointing to hear the recent media reports that there are still issues in compliance under the new contracts. BSCAA nationally supports a strong audit approach,” Stamas told INCLEAN.

The overhaul of government school cleaning contracts followed multiple investigations that found school cleaning staff were being underpaid and mistreated. A report released by United Voice in May 2017  Wage Theft in Victorian Government Schools uncovered 81 per cent of school cleaners in Victoria were being paid below award wages. One cleaner identified in the report was found to have been paid just $2.63 per hour cash in hand for her first week of work.

The report also found 32 per cent of cleaners were not being paid for all of their work, while nearly one in five workers were working at schools under sham contracting arrangements, employed on ABNs and denied such basic entitlements as sick leave, annual leave and superannuation.

At the time of the report’s release United Voice estimated  total wage theft exceeds $10 million per year across Victoria’s 4000 state school cleaners. The union labelled Victoria’s school cleaning at the time as “the worst of any state in the country”.

United Voice assistant secretary Ben Redford said the audit has also been welcomed by the union.

“It’s been a big job to transition from the previous school cleaning system, where most cleaners were being ripped off and exploited on a daily basis,” Reford told INCLEAN.

“There’s no doubt we’re facing some transitional issues right now, and the cleaners union is keen to work with Government to ensure cleaners are treated properly and have enough hours to get their job done safely.

“We welcome the audit by the department, particularly to make sure cleaners are receiving fair pay and treatment under the reforms.”

INCLEAN has contacted the Victorian Department of Education and Training for comment.

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