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Monday, 16 June 2003
Page: 16432

Ms JANN McFARLANE (5:18 PM) —Yesterday, 15 June 2003, was International Cleaners Day. I would like to take this opportunity to bring to the House's attention the appalling conditions that so many cleaners work under. As well, I would like to congratulate the efforts of the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union, the Missos, in drawing the attention of the community to this issue and their campaign `International Justice for Cleaners Day'.

Much too often, cleaners are employed by contract companies who win their contracts by providing quotes that are so low that they cannot afford to give workers decent working conditions. Businesses blindly accept the lowest quote offered to them without any concern for the human costs of their quests for massive profits. Cleaners frequently face new contracts and the uncertainty that goes with them. There is often no guarantee that wages and entitlements will be protected from contract to contract. There is rarely any recognition of service or any long service leave paid. There are many examples of these companies falling into financial difficulty and finding themselves unable to pay their employees' superannuation and other entitlements.

To increase profit margins even further, cleaners employed by such companies are expected to meet impossible deadlines. Contractors further reduce their asking price by paying their staff for fewer hours while expecting the same amount of work to be performed. People who work in these jobs are some of the most marginalised members of our society. They are women, migrants and the young, primarily. Whilst the salaries of managers and executives continue to rise, those at the other end of the widening income gap are being forced to accept low wages and substandard working conditions. Big businesses have been able to exploit these people by reinforcing the belief that they are powerless against them.

Often cleaners are unskilled and have limited career options. Many are women whose families rely on the second income, many are migrants who are unaware of their rights and many are young people struggling to pay for an education. They need these jobs and they are being exploited because of their need. I would like to commend those companies who employ their cleaners on their staff and those companies who accept a higher quote for tenders and are socially responsible. There are too few of you. Hopefully this campaign and awareness raising will allow more of you to develop.

I would like to now talk about a situation within my electorate of Stirling. The Australian Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union is fighting to protect the rights of the cleaners who work at a large hotel in Scarborough, the Rendezvous Observation City Hotel on the beachfront. This company relies on its cleaners to maintain its good image. Unfortunately, when their job is performed well, customers rarely pay any attention, but they are being expected to perform more and more work in fewer hours. Cleaners need to receive greater recognition for the valuable contribution they make to our society. We need to support them in their fight for reasonable conditions and ensure their entitlements are protected if a cleaning company closes down.

Companies that allow such exploitation to occur, like the international chain that runs the Rendezvous Observation City Hotel and the contractor AHS, must be held accountable for their actions. They cannot be allowed to get away with treating the people who work for them so irresponsibly. Businesses like the Rendezvous Observation City Hotel are equally responsible for the wellbeing of their contract workers and they need to be certain that, in accepting the lowest quote, they are not forcing workers to accept substandard conditions of employment.

Security guards are another group of people whose work has been contracted out, and they are paying the price. For workers this means a lack of job security from one contract to the next, with wages and conditions that are well below the award. Often the burden of added costs, such as uniforms, is being placed on the workers as well.

This government created federal Australian workplace agreements with minimum conditions of employment and, supposedly, a `no disadvantage' regime. Workers cannot negotiate from a position of power, especially if they are not in a union. If it were not for the unions, many people working under AWAs would be working well and truly below the poverty line. The International Justice for Cleaners Day is being jointly organised by two unions: in Australia by the LHMU—the Missos—with 130,000 members and, in the US, by the SEIU, with 1½ million members. It is being remembered with campaigns and celebrations. They do have wins, and it would be wonderful if the Howard government, MPs and senators, would come on board and acknowledge the good work of unions. It would be even better if the Howard government put their energy into ensuring just and equitable wages, conditions and protection for these workers. The community would benefit; families would benefit; we would all benefit.

Instead, the Howard government continues to tear down workers rights by continually denigrating workers rights and unions and by attempting to bully legislation through this House that keeps low-paid workers, particularly cleaners and security guards, with oppressive and unfair working conditions. Low-paid workers and their unions, the Missos and the SEIU, will continue to think globally and act locally. They will continue to find new strategies to win some justice for themselves and for future workers. One meaningful and fair thing that the Howard government could do is work with the opposition on a global protocol of service sector tendering—one that takes into account the needs of workers and communities. As I have asked before in this place: when did we become an economy instead of a society?

To the people out there in the community who are listening to their parliament, I encourage you to do your bit: join in the Labour Start campaign with trade unionists in Australia, the US and elsewhere. Visit the campaign web site and send off your message to the company. The campaign web site address is Forward this message to your fellow union members, your family and your friends. By sending in your emails, you are supporting the campaign, and, in supporting the campaign, you are supporting justice for low-paid workers. If you are not on the Net, send a fax or letter or make a phone call of support to your local Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union branch. By doing our bit, we can ensure cleaners and security guards get justice and a fair go—the Australian thing.

In participating in this campaign, you are also ensuring that your own working conditions are looked after. If it were not for the unions in this country, workers would be in a very parlous state. We do not want to have the Third World conditions of workers in India and some of the Asian countries, such as Indonesia and Burma, where people have to work in workplaces that are unsafe and insecure, where they are paid minimal wages, tiny wages, starvation wages, and they are expected to subsist on them.

It is always with some sadness that I look at issues like these and say to myself: why, in 2003, am I standing in this House talking about justice; in a country with a well-developed democracy and a well-developed economy, why do we have a situation where the widening income gap is creating executives, senior managers and other people on very high wages, but we still have this underclass of very low-paid workers and contract workers? Companies like the Rendezvous Observation City Hotel create a certain image for their employees but it is done on the back of exploitation and oppression.

Another issue of unfairness about the conditions of contract workers is their lack of knowledge and understanding of occupational health and safety laws and protections. Often these workers suffer injuries and they are not aware of the rehabilitation services available through workers compensation. Often they are sacked and they do not know about their rights, through the Industrial Relations Commission, to get their claim for workers compensation identified and lodged or to progress a case where they can get their job back or be treated with a fair payout.

It is with some sadness at times that I talk about justice. As I said, in a society like ours which is well-off, where there are many affluent people, why are these things still happening? We have intelligence in this parliament; we have intelligence among our senators and MPs to address these issues, to create laws, regimes and protections that give justice to all workers. But while we overlook and ignore the needs of our low-paid workers, we will continue to have campaigns like the International Justice Campaign for Clean-ers, as well as for security guards. I bring this to the attention of the House, and I look to this government to take action to address these issues to create a fairer and more equitable Australia.