Today I spoke in Parliament about the Abbott Government's plan to cut government cleaners' pay by nearly $5 an hour. The change is slipped into the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Bill 2014.
HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
The context in which we are debating this bill is a context in which inequality has been rising for a generation. Since 1975 earnings in the top 10 per cent have gone up 59 per cent after inflation. Earnings in the bottom 10 per cent have gone up 15 per cent after inflation. So we have had a generation in which earnings have risen three times faster for financial dealers and anaesthetists than they have for checkout workers and cleaners. To put it another way: if cleaners had enjoyed the same wage growth over the last generation as people in the top of the earnings distribution, they would be $14,000 a year better off.
And so it was in that environment that Labor put in place the Clean Start agreements. This was an approach, very much in the spirit of living wage cases in the United States, in which the government said we thought it was reasonable for those who clean Commonwealth offices to be paid a reasonable rate of pay. That is not a rate of pay that would be regarded as overly generous right through the labour force. What we said was that cleaners would be paid a Clean Start rate of $22.02 an hour, above the award rate of $17.49 an hour. But the government has decided to backtrack on that. After a generation of rising inequality, as part of their so-called 'red tape repeal day' they tried to sneak in this repeal of the Clean Start agreement.
Red tape repeal day would have been nothing but the removal of the hyphen from the word 'e-mail' and changing 'fax' to 'facsimile', or the other way around—I can never remember which way we changed it. That is all it would have been but the three big things the government has slipped into it. First of all they announced the removal of financial protections from pensioners—great for bankers at the top of the distribution; not so good for those like the victims of Trio, Storm and Timbercorp. They have pressed the pause button for the time being on their FoFA changes, but if they go ahead with them they will hurt the most vulnerable. Then they put in the repeal of the Charities Commission, a body supported by four out of five charities and by the vast majority of Australian donors, who get protection from an agency that is there to look after their interests. Then there was the removal of this Clean Start agreement. As a members for Bendigo and Gorton have so articulately pointed out, as the member for Parramatta highlighted, this is a mean and a tricky deal. As a result of the removal of this protection cleaners stand to lose up to $344 a week, nearly $5 an hour being lost from cleaners' pay as a result of the cessation of the Clean Start agreement.
The Prime Minister stood at the dispatch box opposite with cleaners in the gallery and he said, 'No cleaner's pay is reduced.' What he meant by that was that it wasn't going to be his fault if, after the expiry of the Clean Start agreement, another tenderer was to come forward and instead of paying the Clean Start rate of $22.02 was to pay the award rate of $17.49. He would wash his hands of that dirty deal that would affect cleaners. But he knew full well as he said those words that those words were a mistruth at best—that cleaners would lose $5 an hour, because when you open it up to the market, how is a tenderer who pays the Clean Start rate of $22.02 an hour going to compete against someone who undercuts them paying $17.49 an hour? The Prime Minister will knew full well the practical effect of ripping away this protection from cleaners would be that cleaners' pay would be reduced.
That is the great failure of this government—the failure of imagination; the inability to put themselves, with their salaries that place them comfortably in the top one per cent of the earnings distribution, in the shoes of cleaners, whose salaries place them in the bottom 10 per cent of the income distribution. Five dollars an hour probably isn't much on the government benches—or, let's be honest, for anyone with the privilege to serve in this House—but $5 an hour for a cleaner is the difference between being able to pay for a school excursion for your kids, being able to get a new set of tyres on the car, being able to make ends meet when there is a health emergency. This is a mean and tricky deal which will hurt some of the most vulnerable in the Australian community.