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Monday, 7 July 2014
Page: 4235

Senator CAMERON (New South Wales) (16:59): I am absolutely appalled that we have to have a debate in this place about the exploitation of cleaners, some of the poorest workers in this country. They are some of the workers that do some of the dirtiest jobs around this place. They are the workers who keep this place looking fantastic for senators and members as they go about their business. They keep the toilets clean for the public, they keep the toilets clean for the senators, they keep the toilets clean for the Prime Minister and even for Minister Abetz, who is about cutting their wages and conditions.

I listened to Senator Fierravanti-Wells when she was giving her lame excuse for why some of the lowest-paid workers in this country should have their wages cut. She did say that at this moment no-one will have their wages cut. But I have been around industrial relations for many years in this country—27 years a full-time union official—and I know a bit of a con job when I hear it. And we had the con job of all con jobs from the coalition when they stood up here and said, 'No-one will lose out of what we are seeking to do. We are simply trying to remove red tape.'

The coalition's red tape is food on the table for cleaners and their families. The coalition's red tape will simply open up those cleaners to exploitation in the future. We know that because this is simply about opening up those cleaners to exploitation in government establishments, where contractors will come in, try to undercut the rates, try to get the job at the lowest possible rate. Cleaners with any decent rates of pay and conditions at the moment, will have, at the next moment, when they sit down to negotiate their agreement, have their bosses say, 'There is no floor under what we can pay you now; there are no conditions in place. We must cut your wages to remain competitive.'

I have seen it before, and the argument from Senator Fierravanti-Wells that this is about opening Australia up for business is code for opening cleaners up to exploitation. Why should workers on $17 an hour be the workers who are attacked in this parliament? We have seen all these unfair budget positions, where pensioners are getting belted up, where students are getting belted up and where schools and education are losing funding. We have seen all of these unfair government positions, but this has to rank as one of the most unfair positions I have ever seen.

Senator Fierravanti-Wells said that this was outside mainstream industrial relations. Well, I have news for Senator Fierravanti-Wells: for a major employer to say that he, she or that organisation wants a decent underpinning of wages and conditions for contractors who bring workers onto their site is nothing new—absolutely nothing new! There are many workers in weak bargaining positions and there are many workers who do not have the muscle, or the skill or the ability to get a decent rate of pay and conditions. But why should the cleaners in government establishments be amongst the lowest-paid workers in the country when most other workers in here are amongst the highest paid? Why should we create more differentiation between the high-paid people like me and the lowest-paid people, who come in here and clean up after we make the mess? Why should that happen? I just think it is absolutely outrageous—absolutely outrageous! And to run the argument that you cannot do this because it is really a front for the union to sign workers up is probably the worst argument you could put forward.

These are the workers who need union organisation; these are the workers who need support. These are the workers who need to act collectively because they are the workers with the least industrial muscle. It is okay for us, arriving in the big, white Comcar every day, getting chauffeur-driven up here. We get out of the Comcar, we waltz in, we do whatever we like in the office and it is clean the next day. It is cleaned up the next day, and who does that? It is the cleaners. And this government wants them to do that on 17 bucks an hour. I do not think that is fair and I do not think that is reasonable. Senator Fierravanti-Wells, again, used that baseline proposition that the coalition are using for everything, that we have to be economically responsible. Well, sure, you have to be economically responsible but not at the expense of the poorest, most exposed and weakest workers in the country—the cleaners in government establishments.

The government is entitled to put a floor under those payments. The government is entitled to say that cleaners need to be treated with some respect and that cleaners do an important job. If you simply leave it to the market and you let contractors bid against each other as to who can screw their workers to the lowest common denominator, then the wages and conditions of cleaners in government establishments will be amongst the poorest in the country. When you have advisers for the government amongst the highest-paid advisers in the country, when you have frontbenchers and Liberal politicians amongst the highest-paid people in the country and when you have me and Labor people highly paid for the work we do, how can you justify taking away from the lowest-paid workers in the government establishments? There should be a clear and unequivocal position that anyone who works in government is entitled to some respect, some dignity and decent wages and decent conditions, because without decent wages and decent conditions there will be no respect and there will be no dignity.

I challenge any of the coalition members to survive on $17 an hour for two, three or four months—never mind your whole life, like some cleaners have to do!

What is being proposed here is absolutely outrageous and is simply a clear message that Work Choices is on its way back, because that is what this government is about. Many of the same senators who are voting to take away the rights of cleaners are the same senators who voted under John Howard to take away decent rights for workers in this country, to take away their penalty rates, to take away their annual leave loading, to take away all the conditions that they had. The workers were the ones who were left worse off. Those senators do not care about the low pay.

Government senators only want to look after their mates who are putting money into their election funds, these big, secret funds—the Free Enterprise Foundation and Eight By Five—that are set up by the coalition to finance their election campaigns. The slush funds that the coalition have are funded by some of these cleaning contractors that are going out there and screwing workers to the ground so they can make a profit to put money in the pockets of the coalition for the next election campaign.

This is just unacceptable. It is no wonder the archbishop of Canberra has come out and said that this is unacceptable. It is no wonder these workers' union is saying that this is unacceptable. There is no economic crisis in this country. There were three AAA ratings in this country when the government took office. There is no crisis economically and there is no crisis that would mean that you treat workers like disposable pieces of paper and that you should not give them decent rates of pay, decent rights and some dignity. Twenty-odd bucks an hour is not a lot of money to look after the toilets of the senators across the other side of the chamber.