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Monday, 7 July 2014
Page: 4229


Senator LINES (Western Australia) (16:30): Thank you, Mr Deputy President, and congratulations on your appointment today. I move:

That, in the opinion of the Senate, the following is a matter of urgency:

The actions of the Minister for Employment in making the Commonwealth Cleaning Services Guidelines Repeal Instrument 2014 which repeal the Commonwealth Cleaning Services Guidelines 2012 and slash the wages of cleaners covered by Commonwealth contracts.

Senator LINES: I rise to speak about the plight of cleaners and the actual impact on cleaners of the guidelines that Senator Abetz refuses to take responsibility for in this place. In question time today Senator Abetz tried to put the responsibility for cutting cleaners wages by $5 an hour onto the Fair Work Commission. But the truth is Senator Abetz himself has cut the wages of cleaners. There is no way of getting around that; it is not Fair Work, it is not anyone else—it is Senator Abetz who has made the decision to cut the wages of cleaners, and he has done that very early on as the Minister for Employment. In fact, really, he is the 'minister for unemployment' for cutting the wages of cleaners in such a harsh and cruel way.

Senator Abetz has made this decision, saying it is something about red tape. There is no red tape involved in cutting cleaners' wages by $5 an hour. Clearly the minister does not understand what was put in place by Labor. The minister said on the Insiders that he wants a level playing field. That is exactly what Labor put in place—a level playing field. Labor said, if you are a contractor—and in this case a contractor cleaning company bidding for Commonwealth work—then there is a rate of pay that needs to be paid, there are a set of conditions that need to be adhered to, and there is a work rate which has been thoroughly investigated and set. What that did was ensure that cleaners, who might work in the same building for 30 years but have five or six different employers, did not go from contract to contract facing this uncertainty. What was happening before Labor put in place the level playing field was that, at contract change, cleaners did not know even if they had a job. So every time a contract changed—every couple of years—cleaners faced the prospect of having no employment and of finding themselves on the scrap heap of unemployment. Labor fixed that through the guidelines.

The second thing Labor did was take their wages out of competition, because one of the other things that contractors used to be able to compete around was whether they paid the award for cleaners, which is around $18 an hour, or whether there was an enterprise agreement in place. Labor said, 'No, if we are going to have an even playing field, then cleaners deserve to have the same hourly rate—not to have their wages go up or down or indeed be out of work every time somebody else, not the cleaners but a government bureaucrat, makes a decision to change a contract.'

Labor also put in place a fair work rate because, when cleaners were kept on by the contractor, they would be told suddenly that their cleaning area had doubled. Obviously that is not fair. Labor amended all of that and put into place a set of guidelines that said, 'If you are contracting for government work in government buildings there is a certain standard.' Minister Abetz has come along and just slashed that. There is no red tape about this. This is ideological hatred of workers in this country. He demonstrates it day after day in this chamber. Standing here today in response to questions put to him on behalf of Labor, asking him why he did that, he tried to shift the blame to the Fair Work Commission.

The Archbishop of Canberra and Goulburn is so concerned about this that yesterday he raised this in the media. In fact, he has called cleaners 'the new battlers'. Senator Abetz rubbished him as well and said that he did not know the full story. Well, the test is coming, Senator Abetz, because on 1 October the Garrison Support contract will change. Those cleaners currently have their rate of pay, their right to continue to work, their conditions of employment and their workload set by Labor under Labor's standards under those guidelines. Those guidelines were slashed and burned by Senator Abetz a couple of weeks ago. So Senator Abetz said to those 50-odd cleaners at Garrison Support: 'I don't care about you. I'm going to hide behind the Fair Work Commission and red tape and I'm going to slash your pay.' That is the detail underpinning that quick signature that Senator Abetz sneakily put on a piece of paper a couple of weeks ago. He has absolutely directly—no-one else is responsible for this but Senator Abetz—threatened the ongoing employment of those cleaners at Garrison Support.

So that is their first issue. Do they have a job on 2 October? If they have a job, will they have lost more than $100 a week in pay? The new contractor coming in under Senator Abetz's new guideline can just take their current pay and drop them back to the award, no questions asked—'If you want the job, this is the rate you sign for.' We have all been there before in the old Work Choices days. Senator Abetz has threatened their employment. If they are given a job, they could be asked to sign at the lower rate. In addition to that, they could have their hours cut, their conditions cut or their workload increased. For those cleaners at Garrison Support what the minister has done has absolutely guaranteed they have no certainty about the future.

And good on the Archbishop for Canberra and Goulburn for speaking out, because it is not okay to take $170-odd away from cleaners who work full time. They have bills to pay. They have families to feed. All of those 50-odd cleaners at Garrison Support are facing that real threat on 2 October.

The other person I would like to talk about is Chris Wagland, a long-term cleaner in government contracts. She has worked in a Defence building for about 30 years. She lost her job previously under John Howard and his harsh Work Choices laws. Chris, despite fronting up to work every day in the Commonwealth building and doing a great job raising a family with boys in high school and so on, refused to sign an Australian workplace agreement and—guess what—was sacked. Chris is back there now; but, again, once her contract comes up, she is facing uncertainty. Will she lose her job? Will her hourly rate be cut? What will happen to her workload? In the 30 years that Chris Wagland has worked at that Defence contract building she has had five or six different employers. It is the same building, same cleaning and same staff she probably interacts with every day of the week, and yet on five occasions her job has been threatened, her livelihood has been threatened and she has also been sacked.

So Chris was one of the cleaners who was very excited when Labor signed these Fair Work principles, and what she is now seeing is same old, same old under this Abbott government. This is a Prime Minister who also on Fairfax radio promised no worker would be worse off under the government led by Mr Tony Abbott. Guess what? Here we have 50 low-paid cleaners—and, when you walk into a government building, they will be the lowest paid people there. Two weeks ago Senator Abetz sneakily—he did not tell anyone or signal he was going to do it—cut their rate of pay. There is no getting around this. There is no trying to blame Fair Work. The blame for this rests fairly and squarely with Senator Abetz. Those 50 cleaners at Garrison Support on 2 October will not know whether they have a job, what their hours of work will be, what their rate of pay will be or what their work rate will be, and that responsibility rests fairly and squarely with the 'minister for unemployment'. That is what he is really doing. Responsibility for their welfare and their future rests with Senator Abetz.