Student exploitation: Fair Work Ombudsman targets shoddy cleaning contractors

The Fair Work Ombudsman has commenced a massive audit of cleaning businesses in response to the exploitation of international student cleaners. Grace Yew reports.

Office cleaners take a stand at the Clean Start campaign.

Office cleaners take a stand at the Clean Start campaign. Photo: Clean Start

The Fair Work Ombudsman has launched a massive audit of Melbourne CBD cleaning contractors, following reports of international students being unlawfully employed on sham contract arrangements.

The campaign is a response to the large numbers of complaints received by the agency each year concerning underpaid cleaning workers, many of whom are migrant workers and international students.

Workers’ union United Voice recently raised a complaint against cleaning company Assetlink, alleging the company hired international student cleaners under a sham contracting arrangement.

The students, who were employed by Assetlink through a subcontractor, worked evening shifts as cleaners at the Melbourne Commonwealth Law Courts building. They were paid well below legal minimum wage and missed out on penalties, superannuation, holiday leave, sick leave and other essential entitlements.

Given education is Victoria’s biggest export industry, (the exploitation of student cleaners) is a critical issue for Victoria – Jess Walsh, United Voice Victorian Secretary

“The workers were missing out on up to $6.35 an hour even before the lack of key entitlements were factored in. The casual rate, which compensates for the lack of these entitlements, is $29.64 – so they were effectively underpaid by nearly $12 an hour,” said Jess Walsh, Victorian Secretary of United Voice.

“Given education is Victoria’s biggest export industry, this is a critical issue for Victoria,” she noted.

United Voice found that the international students who were employed by the sub-contractor, wore Assetlink uniforms and told union officials that they were directly employed by Assetlink.

Assetlink’s national general manager Wayne Golbert denied the allegations, claiming the sub-contractor had confirmed that the students were receiving full legal entitlements. Golbert added that Assetlink had since terminated the sub-contracting arrangement.

“We don’t accept they were underpaid,” he told The Australian.

A United Voice survey has found at least 55 per cent of cleaners employed in Melbourne CBD offices are international students. In the survey, some students also reported several incidents of racial abuse and intimidation by their supervisors.

Related story: International student cleaners exploited by shopping centre owners: report

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“The cleaning industry employs large numbers of young people and migrant workers who can be vulnerable if they are not fully aware of their rights, so it’s important we are proactive about ensuring they are paid their full entitlements,” said Acting Fair Work Ombudsman Michael Campbell in July.

In the same statement, Mr Campbell announced a national audit of over 1000 cleaning contractors. The Fair Work Ombudsman will be conducting inspections to ensure cleaning employees are paid their minimum hourly and penalty rates.

The initiative is a follow-up to a similar audit in 2010, which reimbursed 934 underpaid employees and found 149 of 376 cleaning businesses (40 per cent) to be non-compliant with Australian workplace laws.

The union is currently seeking to implement new three-year Clean Start agreements for office cleaners in the CBD. The agreements will include new legal protections for cleaners, requiring companies to ensure all employees receive their minimum lawful entitlements.

The Fair Work website has provided a fact sheet for international students to better understand their workplace rights, including additional details about sham contractors.  

There are 5 comments

  1. Catherine

    It’s good to know there was a response to the article on newspaper about this exploitation. I personally would appreciate any actions that can help fellow international students because the circumstances can be difficult for anything to be done! Let’s hope there will be some positive results… Can MELD report an update in the near future if situation has gotten any better please? 🙂

  2. Sandra Qian

    Thanks Catherine for the suggestion. Meld keeps a close eye on this issue because we understand it affects many international students and will definitely be reporting updates on this in the future.

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