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Monday, 16 June 2003
Page: 16422

Ms O'BYRNE (4:37 PM) —Today I grieve for low-paid workers and the very raw deal every one of them is getting from the Howard government. Today we celebrate International Justice for Cleaners Day. Cleaners are a group of workers who I had the privilege to represent in my previous employment. The day is being commemorated not only in Australia but also in other countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand.

It is perhaps with a touch of irony that John Farnham's For the Last Time concert, which was broadcast nationally last night, was brought to a climax with a performance of his first hit song, Sadie, the Cleaning Lady. The reality today is that there is now a very real chance that the words of that song, `Scrub your floors, do your chores, dear old Sadie, looks as though you'll always be a cleaning lady', will no longer provide the option of certainty of employment which once prevailed. For no matter how hard she works, there is far from any guarantee that she will retain her job.

Certainty of hours and employment for cleaners is now very much a day-to-day proposition. We have begun to experience in this country the real downside of the tidal wave of contracting out which has washed through the cleaning profession. This phenomenon has turned decent jobs into precarious part-time and casual positions with low respect for the workers who fill them. Cleaners are the forgotten workers: because of the time of day that they work, they are often never known on a one-to-one basis by those to whom they provide service and support, and they are very rarely thanked; in fact, the sad thing is that the only occasion where there is communication is when someone has something to complain about.

These days cleaners almost invariably work part time or on a casual basis. Many are provided with inadequate briefs, poor equipment and inappropriate material with which to fulfil their responsibilities. Sadie, as we all know, had a trusty scrubbing brush and a pail of water. Many cleaners are unlikely to have even these meagre tools. Their health is at risk and they have little chance to do their job with any level of pride in their work. All too often they are allocated insufficient hours to do each job properly—a factor which, through no fault of their own, leads to a lack of respect from those who work in or use the premises which they clean.

Cleaners are amongst the lowest paid workers in Australia and have very poor working conditions. A large percentage are women and many, like Sadie, are the sole breadwinner for their family—Sadie, as we recall, `Worked her fingers to the bone for the life she had at home, providing at the same time for her daughter.' Just how well Sadie could do this today, when she would be given limited hours with no accompanying benefits, is sadly all too clear—she simply could not.

Cleaners were once real employees who felt part of the company that they worked for. They had decent jobs with decent pay and, importantly, they were given an adequate amount of time to do the job properly. In other words, they were members of a team and could take pride in the contribution they were making. Now they can feel neither. How often do we hear the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations salivating in this House with claims that this government has created better working conditions, more jobs and more pay for Australian workers? If this is the case in any way, then it is a classic case of statistics being manipulated to say just about anything. The reality is that this government's regime of individual contracts and the like is a time bomb waiting to go off. Of course there will be some workers who, armed with an extra 15 per cent per hour in their pay packet, will be happy with their immediate lot, and of course there will be some workers who will temporarily be happy to work for fewer hours for more dollars per hour. The crunch, however, will come very quickly in each case when they realise the downside of no provision for sickness or holidays.

The mirage is able to be perpetuated with the rhetoric of the likes of the minister. This is because there will often be another worker willing to fill a worker's place when they first hear about the conditions, which appear on the surface to be okay. But this only lasts a brief time until that worker, in turn, finds out that the silver lining is quickly enveloped by a pretty big cloud. The worker and their family soon discover the failings of the great new order. This will continue to happen because the concept is fundamentally flawed. The crunch will always come for the individual. Eventually this experimentation with ideological madness will come back to bite society where it most hurts government—in increased health costs, increased social welfare benefits and the like.

I use as an example the outrageous contract provided to low-paid workers at a meat works in Launceston in my electorate of Bass. `Take it or leave it' is the only option offered to these workers, many of whom have loyally served the company for years without any recourse whatsoever to industrial disputation. The key tenets of this offer include: an acknowledgement that there is no employee-employer relationship; no guarantee of any work; an agreement to receive only an unspecified agreed amount per hour for actual on-site hours; no holiday pay, no long service leave, no sick pay or similar payment or leave entitlements; and an agreement by the worker that the employer has no responsibility or liability to the worker other than the payment for actual on-site hours worked. What happens when things go wrong for the worker? As we know from the song, Sadie's aching knees were not getting any younger.

This is a free kick given by this government and by the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, in particular, to greedy and unscrupulous employers to manipulate workers for their own benefit. The contracting system has created a race to the bottom of the heap: which company can get away with doing as little as possible for as little cost as possible. It seems that profits are all that matter to the company and to this government. It is reported that some big companies are allowing their premises to be cleaned for as little as 15 to 20 minutes per day—spot cleaning. No cleaner believes they can do the job properly in such a time, and they are right. No wonder they feel they lack respect for what they do. Apart from being grossly unfair to the cleaners, policies such as this are fraught with danger, not the least with respect to the health of the workers and customers who work in or come to those premises. The contracting obsession and the elimination of unions from the workplace allow companies to opt for the cheapest tenderers, who then in turn make their profits at the expense of low-paid workers with few, if any, rights.

What happens when a worker gets sick or wants to take his or her family on a holiday? This is the most basic of all of the flaws of this unjust system. The very fabric which underpins Australian society—the principles of equality and a fair go—is stripped away when we have some workers who have adequate and proper conditions and others who do not; when some can afford to get sick while others cannot; and when some can take a holiday or take a day off in the interests of their own or their family's health while others cannot. This, sadly, is another example of the quickly emerging long-term strategy of this government: to create a divided Australia with an underclass completely dependent on the remainder.

It will be not only the low-paid contract workers and their families who will suffer as a result of this government's callous and ill-conceived approach to workplace relations. We will all pay when more and more workers—with their income-earning capacity marginalised by casualisation and increased contracting in the work force—are forced towards, and then into, the poverty trap of the working poor. I, for one, will not be subscribing to the theory that `it sounded like a good idea at the time.' It is not, it never has been, and it will not work.

This is not the only direction in which the government's strategy is taking us. A sad example of this government putting its ideology on workplace relations ahead of the interests of all Australians is the Tullamarine Mail Centre. We were told originally that we needed the mail centre to properly screen mail items before their delivery into Australian mailboxes. Given the strong position taken by the government in relation to a range of other security matters, one would have thought that no obstacle would be allowed to get in the way of such an important construction and consideration. But an obstacle has emerged—one which is entirely of this government's own making. The obstacle, the government says, is that it cannot find a tenderer which can comply with its philosophy on workplace relations. It cannot find a tenderer that fits in with the government's ideological obsession—pathological obsession—with workplace relations.

We saw the same logic applied to a contribution which was requested from the federal government towards the redevelopment of the Melbourne Cricket Ground in time for the 2006 Commonwealth Games. Fortunately in this case, despite the minister's intransigence, these games will go on. Now we see the government at it again; this time it is trying to impose its obsession with workplace relations as a condition for grants to universities. The universities have said that they will not have a bar of those conditions. Let us hope that the message gets through to the government and that will be the last we hear of that nonsense.

Sadie held the No. 1 position on the Australian popular music charts for five weeks in 1968. It was a time when she and her fellow workers could take pride in the job that they did. Sadly, this is no longer the case—to the great shame of this country and to the great shame of this government. I commend all the people who are involved in International Cleaners Day—or International Justice for Janitors Day, as it is known in the US. This is an important recognition for some of the lowest-paid workers in our country. It is an important recognition of our failure to do the right thing by them, as we push them further and further into the casualised and marginalised employment of the working poor.