Dirty start for schools

A school cleaners rally took place on December 6, with more than 100 people in attendance (supplied).

Zoe Moffatt

Government schools are going to be ‘dirtier, unhygienic, and ultimately more dangerous’ for students, a union is warning following continuing contract disputes with cleaning companies Serco and Tradeflex.

The United Workers Union (UWU) is warning of the consequences to students, teachers and cleaners, following a new deal that is set to slash contract hours and strip cleaners of up to 60 per cent of their wage.

Serco and Tradeflex contracts run from January 15 to Christmas Day and replace ISS Facility Services, whose contract formally ended on December 22, 2023.

UWU property service organiser Corey Matthews said the state government was unable to solve issues with the contract change going into Christmas.

“It’s been an awful start to the year for Victoria’s school cleaners with many asking the union how to apply for unemployment benefits,” he said. “[With] some having to ask for extensions on their mortgages with the bank.

“What this means for Victorian families is that going into the 2024 school year state government schools are going to be dirtier, unhygienic, and ultimately more dangerous for our kids.”

On December 20, Education Minister Ben Carroll announced “a range of improvements to school cleaning services that will strengthen and enhance workplace conditions for Victorian school cleaners.”

This statement read that from 2025 cleaners in Victoria will receive a five per cent pay rise above the Cleaning Services Award and extended contracts of 52 weeks guaranteed for one quarter of cleaning staff.

Mr Matthews said the situation wouldn’t have happened if Mr Carroll was paying attention.

“It appears that the new deputy premier and education minister is struggling to adjust to his new portfolios and the responsibilities attached,” he said.

“It’s an incredibly bizarre and out of touch announcement when you have on average cleaners suffering a decrease of 35 per cent in wages, with the most extreme examples… losing 60 per cent.

“Currently the new contractors are milking the government purse by receiving the same amount of money whilst cutting service delivery by over a third.”

Mr Matthews said UWU is in the process of taking ISS to the fair work commission on behalf of members for redundancy payments, with more than 30 members not offered jobs with no redundancy payment made yet.

A Department of Education spokesperson, in response to questions put to Mr Carroll, said they are committed to ensuring schools receive consistent, high-quality cleaning services and that cleaners are paid at the correct rate and receive their entitlements.

“There has been no reduction in funding and cleaning service specification as part of the transition from ISS to Serco and Tradeflex for the 2024 school year,” they said.

“In addition, the department has instructed Serco and Tradeflex that there is to be no loss of seniority for employees who were previously employed by ISS and will be undertaking the same tasks.

“We will not tolerate any evidenced breaches of workplace laws and regulations.”

An ISS company spokesperson said they have been working to facilitate a smooth transition for employees to the new service providers in recent months.

“A small number of employees chose not to accept employment with the new providers or did not receive an offer. We have redeployed those cleaners where possible and paid redundancy to eligible employees unable to be redeployed.”