Court win for refugee school cleaners

Twenty-two Canberra school cleaners won a claim for underpayment in the Federal Court on April 21, in a case launched on their behalf by United Voice.

Nineteen of the workers are S’gaw Karen refugees from Myanmar, who spent two decades in refugee camps in Thailand before being resettled in Australia. 

The part-time school cleaners had been pressured into signing contracts they did not understand, paid by different business entities without explanation either to the workers or the ACT government and routinely exposed to unsafe working conditions.

The Federal Court ruled on several contraventions of the Fair Work Act, labelling the evidence from Phillip Cleaning Service inconsistent and unbelievable. The judgement said: “The amount of money involved is not a good measure of the importance of a claim of this kind.”

The judgement ruled that the workers were not given the opportunity to work in accordance with their legal rights. The cleaners were not paid during school holidays; were denied the opportunity to work elsewhere during the school holidays; were paid all their annual leave entitlements in December whether they wanted to take annual leave or not; were subject to ad hoc rostering of both hours and location; had no provisions for language skills; were provided with no off-site inductions; had to train each other unpaid; and were haphazardly provided with payslips.

The workers are owed up to $300,000. Penalties will also be imposed on Phillip Cleaning Service — the maximum penalty is $383,888.

United Voice ACT branch secretary Lyndal Ryan said: “These workers had their employment rights trashed and were taken advantage of by Phillip Cleaning Service. They were underpaid, misled with dodgy business practices, and exposed to chemicals without the correct safety equipment.

“I congratulate our members for fighting this long battle over the past two years for their entitlements. They wanted their truth to be told. It is shocking that refugees settled in Australia after two decades in refugee camps were treated so appallingly in an Australian workplace.”

Spokesperson for the school cleaners Htoo Ywai said: "We have been through a lot together. But we never let go of each other, even when things get really hard because we know together, in unity, we can fight for our rights."

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