Schools axe cleaning company over underpayment claims

A network of Victorian public schools has been forced to sever ties with a cleaning contractor amid allegations that school cleaners have been underpaid.

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Melbourne-based Ramos Cleaning Services has been stripped of 17 contracts for the cleaning of government-run schools in the city’s north and west, including Brunswick Secondary College, St Albans Secondary College and Thornbury Primary.

The state Education Department earlier this month received correspondence from the company stating that it may have been in breach of workplace laws. The department decided on May 5 to ban it from working at government schools.

“Its contract was terminated after it wrote to us indicating it had breached employment regulations, and company director Alejandro Ramos admitting to a number of school principals [that] staff had been underpaid,” a spokeswoman said.

It is understood that the department’s decision to ban him from school contracts will face a legal appeal.

Cleaners’ union United Voice made a detailed submission to the Education Department in February alleging cleaning staff employed by Ramos and other contractors were being “ripped off in our schools – right in the state government’s own backyard”.

Pay slips, time sheets and contracts from Ramos workers showed many of them were receiving a flat rate between $20 and $22 an hour, but were missing out on penalty rates and other entitlements, meaning their overall take-home pay was often below the award.

Concerns were also raised about the use of “individual flexibility agreements” as a compulsory requirement of employment. The contract contained substandard conditions and restricted new employees’ sick leave to just five days a year.

Mr Ramos said he had substantially increased rates of pay in March to a minimum hourly rate of $24.60 and $25.45, and provided back-pay to employees.

Some of his former employees had been kept on by the replacement contractors, Mr Ramos said, but others had lost their jobs as a result of losing the school cleaning work.

“Some of them will be on the street now,” he said.

The federal workplace watchdog, the Fair Work Ombudsman, meanwhile, has opened an investigation into Ramos Cleaning Services’ underpayments, as well as underpayment allegations at other school sites.

“The Fair Work Ombudsman is currently investigating allegations regarding underpayment of cleaners engaged by contractors at various sites,” a spokesman said.

“We are also conducting enquiries on the procurement and contracting arrangements associated with the supply of this labour.”

The ombudsman’s office said it could not provide further comment while the investigations were ongoing.

Union secretary Jess Walsh said Victoria had the “worst school cleaning system in the nation”, and raised concerns that some contractors who had replaced Ramos at some schools might also be underpaying staff.

“This is an embarrassing mess,” Ms Walsh said.

Ms Walsh said cleaning companies that underpaid workers had no place in state schools. “It’s time to clean up this mess once and for all.”

A spokeswoman for the Education Department said interim contractors had been appointed to “ensure all schools are able to provide a safe and clean environment for students and staff”.

She said school councils were following the standard procurement process to appoint new cleaning contractors.

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