Cleaners rewarded for extra elbow grease

Their job is rated as more hazardous than those in the construction and mining industry*, so when it became evident the Coronavirus had reached our shores NSW’s school cleaners knew they were on the front line.

Judith Barber, school cleaner at Bowraville Central High School on the NSW north coast, said the early days of the outbreak were “really crazy times”.

“As cleaners we understand the parents’ concern and the teachers’ [concern], with the possibility of an outbreak of the virus in the school and in the local community,” Judith said.

“As cleaners, a lot of us belong to the school community and you do extra when you can, bits and pieces, wiping down extra things. But now we were really pushing ourselves.

“I know a lot of cleaners stayed on site for extra time and pushed themselves to get as much done outside their normal hours for the students and the staff.”

The NSW Government announced a $250 million boost to the whole of government cleaning contract, where school cleaners would be paid to work 25 per cent extra hours at double time to carry out enhanced cleaning.

“It was a relief in that we could physically put in extra time into the sites,” Judith said.

The school cleaning contracts have been the subject of a death of a thousand cuts since 2011 under the Coalition, as the budget allocation for cleaning contracts has shrunk by increments. Another $75 million was to be slashed from 1 March, which translated to a loss of 11 hours per week at Bowraville Central.

Judith and her United Workers Union colleagues believe the Government’s concession on cleaning hours provides a case for extended cleaning arrangements to continue after the pandemic.

“If the Government honestly believed we had enough time to clean the schools to the standard that was needed, why did they have to introduce enhanced cleaning?” she said. “They know full well we don’t have time. They want the desks cleaned down every day, the doorknobs, and the rest of the items on the list of things for enhanced cleaning, but they know we don’t have time to do it.

“The schools need more, they deserve more and health and hygiene is paramount no matter when, but the bean counters just don’t want to acknowledge how important it is.”

* According to figures from Safe Work Australia, the injury rate for building cleaning, pest control and gardening services was an average of 13.1 claims per million hours worked between 2010 and 2016. The rate for construction over the same period was 8.9 per cent and 5 per cent for mining.

Scott Coomber is a staff writer