School cleaners get pre-Christmas gift from ACT Government after contracts lapse
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School cleaners get pre-Christmas gift from ACT Government after contracts lapse

The Canberra school cleaners who were left without work for a fortnight after an ACT government crackdown on their industry will receive a special surprise ahead of Christmas.

More than 200 cleaners could get an ex-gratia payment of $1100 after they were laid off by their employers when the government condensed its school cleaning contracts.

United Voice secretary Lyndal Ryan and school cleaner Namgay Namgay.

United Voice secretary Lyndal Ryan and school cleaner Namgay Namgay.

Photo: Jamila Toderas

United Voice secretary Lyndal Ryan said cleaners were "relieved" by the one-off sum.

"It's been a tough few years for some," Ms Ryan said.

"Our people always feel it particularly hard this time of year."

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The territory government overhauled its management of ACT public school cleaning contracts after concerns about rampant underpayment and sham contracting.

The territory's 87 schools are now cleaned by four companies - ACT Commercial Cleaning, Dimeo Cleaning Services, Menzies International and Vivid Property Services - compared to 23 companies before.

The changes were intended to make it easier for officials to ensure individual cleaners weren't being ripped off.

But instead cleaners were left without work when they were laid off from companies that were unsuccessful in gaining a contract.

At the time the ACT Education said the new contracts obliged the successful companies to hire from the existing workforce if they needed new recruits.

United Voice sought an urgent hearing with the Fair Work Commission and the four new companies made conditional offers of employment to affect cleaners.

But because of the lapse in time between one contract ending and the other starting, cleaners were forced to dip into the annual leave they had been paid out to survive for that period.

Some received no payout and were forced to chase the company for what they were owed, Ms Ryan said.

And at a time of year when many employees are forced to take annual leave, Ms Ryan said these cleaners had nothing to rely on to tide them over.

"Most companies have a policy that asks you to take leave at this time of year so these cleaners were facing another two weeks where they didn't have wages paid because of that shortfall in annual leave," Ms Ryan said.

"The government has listened to us and been prepared to remedy that."

Ms Ryan said they were working double-time to help cleaners lodge the paperwork and evidence needed to get the payment before Christmas.

"They've been moving heaven and earth to get this done," Ms Ryan said.

The difficulty of that process has been compounded by the poor record-keeping and unwillingness of some of the cleaners' former employers to help, Ms Ryan said.

Ms Ryan said the industry had "vastly improved" after the contracts shake-up, although there had been some "hiccups" along the way.

"It's a difficult industry to regulate but I think contractors are getting the message the government is serious when it comes to contractors meeting all the terms of their contracts, that they're not just putting words on paper, they're willing to enforce it," Ms Ryan said.

School cleaner Namgay Namgay said he had been very stressed about money, with a daughter to support and school fees due.

Under his old employer, he would be without pay for six weeks of the year because of school holidays.

"We had so many bills to pay and we had no income," Mr Namgay said.

His new employer gives him two weeks worth of paid leave plus a lump sum.

"It really has been great," Mr Namgay said.

"With that fortnight's pay I can pay for house and have money for a Christmas holiday. I am really thankful."

Katie Burgess is a reporter for the Canberra Times, covering ACT politics.

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