Rampant exploitation of Woolworths cleaners revealed

Cleaning contractors at 90 per cent of Woolworths’ Tasmanian supermarket sites were not complying with workplace laws. This is one of the findings of the Fair Work Ombudsman’sreport detailing its Inquiry into the procurement of cleaners in Tasmanian supermarkets, released today.

The Inquiry was commenced in late 2014 in response to intelligence received by the Fair Work Ombudsman that supermarket cleaners in the state were being significantly underpaid.

Fair Work Ombudsman Natalie James said that the Inquiry report shows how alarming levels of exploitation can occur where supply chains involving vulnerable workers are not adequately monitored.

The Inquiry looked into contracting arrangements for cleaners at all 31 of Woolworths’ Tasmanian sites, as well as seven Coles sites and 17 IGA sites. Its focus on Woolworths sites was due to it being the only retailer of the three operating in Tasmania outsourcing its day-to-day cleaning services.

“Our Inquiry found deficiencies in Woolworths’ governance arrangements with regard to its procurement and oversight of cleaning contracts, resulting in serious exploitation occurring at multiple levels of its cleaning supply chain,” James said. “We uncovered breaches across 90 per cent of Woolworths’ Tasmanian sites, including cases of contractors paying cleaners as little as seven dollars per hour for training and $14 per hour for work – well below their legal entitlements.”

Ms James said that cleaners were often paid in unrecorded cash-in-hand payments with no payslips provided.

“Such blatant and widespread breaches of workplace laws are clearly unacceptable, and echo the findings of our previous inquiries into supply chains employing low-skilled and vulnerable workers.”

To date, the Inquiry has identified more than $64,000 in underpayments, with more than $21,000 of these having been rectified. However, poor record-keeping; incomplete, inaccurate or false records; and a lack of cooperation from vulnerable workers impeded the Fair Work Ombudsman’s ability to quantify the true amount of underpayments.

It has also initiated two litigations as a result of the Inquiry and has also referred three contractors to the Australian Taxation Office concerning cash payments and misleading or false tax declarations. Investigations into a number of businesses that supply cleaning services to Woolworths in Tasmania remain ongoing.

The Fair Work Ombudsman is calling on Woolworths, Coles and IGA to become members of the Cleaning Accountability Framework, an industry led initiative which promotes the adoption of best practice throughout the cleaning supply chain to improve labour and cleaning standards in Australia.

“We see too many cases of vulnerable workers engaged in low-skilled work in supply chains of major companies being exploited,” Ms James said. “The community expects large reputable businesses to make sure that the rights and entitlements of workers within their supply chains are safeguarded. We will be continuing to shine a light on this issue and urge businesses to step up and commit to working with us to stamp out cases of worker exploitation occurring in their networks.”

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