Thursday, August 30, 2012

Cuts to school cleaners' hours of work are a health risk

Vanguard September 2012 p. 12
Ned K.

On Saturday 18 August it was reported in The Advertiser that teachers and parents at public schools in suburban Adelaide were cleaning children’s class room desks because cleaners did not have enough time to clean them properly.

One parent told the media that her daughter refused to use the allocated toilet block for children because of their unhygienic state. 

The cleaners are employed by contractors who can only win contracts from the Education Department by rostering each cleaner for duty for between two and four hours per day depending on the size of the school.

Prior to 2010 the Education Department required contractors to clean whole schools in a time frame of just two hours from 3.30pm to 5.30pm. The 3.30pm starting time coincided with the end of most school classroom time. The 5.30pm finish time was the end of ordinary day time cleaning hours. Any cleaning after 5.30pm meant that contractors would have to include in their quote award shift penalty time in the labor component of the contract. If they did this they were considered too expensive by the Department compared with a contractor who stuck rigidly to the 3.30pm to 5.30pm cleaning time.

Race To The Bottom

To win contracts in a highly competitive industry, cleaning contractors would put in tenders with less cleaning hours which equated to less cleaners. So for example instead of quoting on 10 cleaners at two hours each per day, a contractor may boast that it could get the work done with nine cleaners at two hours each day and so on. The Education Department, under orders from Treasury to reduce costs, would hand the contract to the lowest bidder. The Minister could then get a pat on the back from Treasury for meeting its cost reduction targets.

Cleaners with a sense of loyalty to the children and teachers ended up working in unpaid time to get the job done, but high turn over of labor and lack of training of cleaners saw complaints about cleaning standards grow. The one saving grace for cleaners, children and teachers alike was that the cleaners did not start work until classes were finished.

Education Department Makes Further Cuts To Cleaning Standards

When new awards came in to being with the Fair Work Act, there was a legal requirement for a cleaning contractor to provide a minimum engagement for a cleaner of up to 4 hours per day depending on the total cleaning area of the school being cleaned. There was also a requirement to pay cleaners a part time allowance of 15% under the cleaners’ award.

The Education Department  responded to the new award requirements in two ways. To comply with the new minimum shifts of up to 4 hours for cleaners, contractors were told to change the starting time of cleaners from 3.30pm to 2pm to ensure that the 4 hours minimum engagement would finish before 6pm. (Under the new award, afternoon penaly rates apply for any shift finishing after 6pm.) So cleaners had to then not only manage unrealistic workloads but try and clean classrooms and other areas in classroom time.

The Department also ‘reviewed’ the cleaning areas that it required contractors to clean to find ways to make the cleaners’ award 15% part time allowance ‘cost neutral’. What this ‘review’ means in practice is  a further increase in workoad for cleaners and reduced cleaning standards as some cleaning tasks such as cleaning desk tops just no longer get done.

Thatcherism Revisited

The story above is similar to what happened under Thatcherism in the 1980s when the Thatcher Government cut back so severely on cleaning services in London through contracting out the lowest bidder that there was serious talk of a rat plague in London streets and buildings.

It is only a matter of time before there is an outbreak of disease in a school directly related to poor cleaning standards. Or it may occur in some other public space such as a food court in a shopping centre where cleaning standards are also a threat to the public due the greed of multinationals like Westfield.

It is the people out in their communites who experience day to day the impact of so-called austerity measures of governments who think being ‘financially responsible’ to big business demands. Nobody knows where a particular community’s tipping point is before there is a spontaneous outburst of rage.

As concerned citizens we need to be with our communities and link spontaneous outbursts of rage and protest to the struggle for a new type of society which puts people’s interests first.

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