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Monday, 16 June 2003
Page: 11472

Senator MACKAY (10:14 PM) —I rise today to speak about International Justice for Cleaners Day, a day that is commemorated around the world on 15 June. The origins of this commemoration began in the United States, where it is known as Justice for Janitors Day. The day was established after janitors in Los Angeles were beaten by police during a peaceful demonstration against the cleaning contractor ISS on 15 June 1990. The public outrage generated by this incident resulted in ISS agreeing to recognise Los Angeles janitors in a union. In remembrance of that day, Service Employees International Union janitors and supporters take action every 15 June in cities across America and in countries around the world.

Here in Australia it is the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union whose members and supporters commemorate this day. The cleaners of our nation are often the forgotten, invisible workers. They often carry out their work unobserved and at times when our offices, shopping centres, banks and hotels are closed. We see the product of their labour but rarely see them performing it. If we were to watch them at work, I am sure that many of us would be chastened by what we would see. We would see people with insufficient paid hours to do a job that they can feel proud of. We would see people who are working without adequate tools and cleaning products to do the job properly. We would see people who do not have access to long service leave, despite having worked at the same location for 15 years or more. What we would see is workers holding down poverty jobs, based on low wages and insecure working conditions, workers who are increasingly part of a globalised services sector.

I note that amongst the many GATS requests Australia has received from WTO members are specific requests for Australia to make full commitments on market access and national treatment under all modes of supply for `grounds, maintenance and washing and cleaning services'. I would love to be in a position to discuss this further and to be able to inform my fellow senators and the wider community about the potential implications of these requests but, unfortunately, I cannot. I cannot because the Howard government is conducting all the GATS negotiations in secret, behind closed doors. The elected representatives of the Australian people, the parliament, and the workers who may ultimately be affected will just have to wait patiently until Minister Vaile decides to tell us what he has negotiated.

In the meantime, like other senators, I have been following with interest and concern the public hearings of the Senate Community Affairs Committee inquiry into poverty and financial hardship. I note that some members of the LHMU gave evidence at the Adelaide hearing on 29 April. One of those members was Lynette Lapthorne, a 56-year-old cleaner, who has worked at the South Australian Submarine Corporation for around 14 years. She works approximately 16 hours a week for $12.38 per hour—the minimum rate. In her evidence to the inquiry Lyn said:

Just before Christmas last year, I received the minimum wage pay rise and the boss responded by reducing the hours of work by up to an hour a day—no less work, but less hours. This makes the pay rise meaningless ... The general lack of hours for cleaners means that single people have to do more than one job to make ends meet. This is particularly bad for single mothers ... The cleaning contract system renegotiated every 12 months means constant uncertainty, unable to plan for financial future.

Another person who gave evidence to the inquiry was Mr Russell Spencer, a 54-year-old cleaner, who until recently worked at the Myer Centre. He told the inquiry:

I had worked there for 10 years, through three different employers as the contracts kept on changing. About six weeks ago I was made redundant. I was one of 15 people who were retrenched when the contract changed. Twelve of us were over 40. We were cleaners with lots of experience. As a result of losing the job and of having three different employers over the 10 years that I worked on the one site, I have no long service leave, because each employer has committed it, but the long service leave is not portable. It makes life really difficult.

My last three pay rises were followed by loss of hours and still the expectation to do the same amount of work, and it just gets harder and harder ... The major worry I have is that I cannot see myself being able to retire at all. I am going to have to be working until I cannot work any more. When you are doing physical work, the older you get the harder it gets. My body hurts now. God knows what it is going to be like in 20 years time.

In my home state of Tasmania the cleaning work force is predominantly made up of women in their mid-30s to mid-50s, and 85 per cent of work is part time. Yet again it is women who are overrepresented in low-paid insecure employment with little if any access to maternity leave, long service leave or superannuation. These are the women whom John Howard refuses to support and from whom, through his attempts to dismantle our industrial relations system, he wants to remove what little protection they have left. These are the women who will be forced to rely on the age pension in their later years, and they will be the real women behind the statistics that point to a continuing inequity between the economic status of men and women.

I acknowledge that there are many men who make up the cleaning work force of this nation. I recognise that these issues apply to them equally but, yet again, it is women who are overrepresented, unlike in this chamber, among those being dudded by this government, a government that has shown no interest in the needs of those struggling on low incomes, as evidenced only too clearly by Mr Costello's recent budget. These workers will be among the thousands of Australians who will lose the ability to access a bulk-billing doctor and who had better start saving now if they want their children to have the opportunity to attend university.

One of the current pressing issues for cleaners in my home state is that of gaining access to portable long service leave. Only in the ACT have cleaners been successful in winning portability. I am very pleased that, as a result of a motion passed at the last Tasmanian ALP conference, the Tasmanian government is currently undertaking a review of this issue and how it may be addressed. I await the outcome of the review with great interest. While awaiting this decision, I should congratulate the Tasmanian Labor government on being the only state government to show an unwavering commitment to directly employed school attendants. These workers, who contribute so directly to safer, cleaner and more secure schools, have had the protection of a five-year job security clause, which is in the process of being negotiated for another five years. I congratulate the Tasmanian government and David O'Byrne and the LHMU on being able to achieve such a good outcome for these workers.

Today, 16 June, LHMU members have been protesting outside major Westfield shopping centres in solidarity with SEIU members in the United States to urge Westfield to respect workers' rights. The cleaners at Westfield centres, and at most shopping centres and office blocks around the country, are employed by contractors. In an effort to ever reduce their tender price, contractors are squeezing their workers by reducing their hours to the point where jobs cannot be done safely or thoroughly. Workers are left in unsafe conditions or work additional hours without pay—half an hour here and half an hour there—to ensure the job gets done. Workers take pride in their work and, sometimes despite the best efforts of the unions, are reluctant to leave the job half done, even if that means undertaking unpaid work. Furthermore, workers sometimes wait weeks for their pay as contractors make excuses for why the money is not there. A recent dispute at Westfield's Parramatta centre saw workers walk off the job on 2 May, after again not being paid on time. A number of workers reported that they regularly do not see their fortnightly pay packet for six weeks or more. This is not good enough. Whilst it may be the contractor who is at fault, the management of the company that employs the contractor have an obligation to ensure that the contractor fulfils their basic obligation to their workers.

Whilst the LHMU battles to obtain basic rights for these people, who number amongst the most disadvantaged in our society, John Howard does nothing to curb the excesses of the big end of town. The LHMU pointed to this in their submission to the poverty and financial hardship inquiry, a key recommendation of their submission being an accountability process for the impact of spiralling CEO salaries on increasing levels of inequality in Australia. Jeff Lawrence, the LHMU national secretary, said:

If low-waged workers are forced to go through an annual minimum wage case to justify their pay increases, we don't see why the government should not introduce a second inquiry into how the wages at the top should be restrained. Rather than restraining the wages of the people at the bottom we should look to ways of restraining the over paid executives.

I wish the LHMU every success with their campaign to gain justice for their members and with their broader campaign for fair wages and decent work for low-paid workers. I also thank those workers who labour, usually thanklessly, to keep our workplaces and community spaces clean.