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Transcript – 7.30
LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: Office cleaning is one of the hardest jobs going – lonely hours, dirty work, low pay and little thanks.
Now one of Sydney’s biggest cleaning companies stands accused of systematic underpayment of international students on its staff.
85 per cent of cleaners in Australia are overseas students trying to support their studies. They’re also one of the biggest money spinners for the Australian economy, bringing in $18 billion a year.
This investigation by reporter Sarah Whyte comes off the back of a year of high-profile stories of exploitation and the Federal Government is now stepping in.
SARAH WHYTE, REPORTER: As the sun dips over Sydney’s iconic skyline and office workers are preparing for the commute home, another group of workers start their shifts.
One company, BIC Services Australia, has the lion’s share of cleaning contracts in Sydney’s CBD.
BIC promotes itself as a caring and responsible employer.
BIC SERVICES CORPORATE VIDEO (male voiceover): Cleaning costs should not be driven down any further. Let us work together to improve productivity and quality of life for cleaning staff.
SARAH WHYTE: Does BIC treat its workers well?
OMNARAYAN SHARMA, FORMER BIC EMPLOYEE: No.
SARAH WHYTE: Why not?
OMNARAYAN SHARMA: Because I always see BIC treating the workers as a slave.
SARAH WHYTE: Workers are alleging rampant underpayment and underwork by BIC. Most of them are international students. Their visa conditions restricts them to work only 20 hours a week, so many work off the books. Far from home and with little English, they are ripe for exploitation.
CHEERAVIT KHAN, FORMER BIC EMPLOYEE (voiceover translation): I was very surprised as I didn’t expect it to happen in this country, which has very strict laws. I have just arrived only two months ago and I didn’t expect this to happen to me.
SARAH WHYTE: In October, Cheeravit Khan came to Australia from Thailand with his wife to study English. Only last month, he was fired by BIC.
Struggling to pay his bills, he had told his manager he needed to find more work.
CHEERAVIT KHAN (voiceover translation): He was not happy and told me that he wouldn’t pay me for all work I’d done. He asked me to leave the room and take off my company uniform.
SARAH WHYTE: Did you ever get paid for your job?
CHEERAVIT KHAN (voiceover translation): I didn’t get any money, not at all. I didn’t get paid because I didn’t work for a month, as agreed. He then said they wouldn’t pay me.
SARAH WHYTE: BIC confirmed that an employee named Cheeravit did work for them, but says he walked off the job and had not returned to collect his payment.
CHEERAVIT KHAN (voiceover translation): I feel really, really angry because for that amount of money, I could have survived for two or three weeks.
SARAH WHYTE: Cheeravit is not the only cleaner claiming to be underpaid by BIC. On Friday, the union took the company to the Federal Court with claims of breaches of the Fair Work Act.
The union has also identified underpayments of about $450,000.
Of the 197 cleaners audited by the union, it claims 93 were underpaid between May, 2014 and April this year.
Om Sharma says this not a new problem for the company.
OMNARAYAN SHARMA: I was doing the toilet cleaning in BIC and I use to clean nine levels with seven shower screens. And they use to give me four hours a day to clean those all things, which is not – which was not possible to finish. And it was like two people’s job and I had to work more than five hours a day to finish my job.
SARAH WHYTE: Om, a student from Nepal, worked for BIC or three years. He left in 2013.
OMNARAYAN SHARMA: The managers used to treat the cleaners as a slave, yeah, which I never like, and in the beginning, I just use to ignore them, but later on, it was too much for me.
SARAH WHYTE: When you say slave, what did they do to you?
OMNARAYAN SHARMA: Like, they use to yell on us, they use to scold us, they use to push us to do extra jobs, which use to take a lot of our time and they didn’t pay us properly. I just feel very bad about that, but I couldn’t do anything because I had only one job and as I’m a student, I had to survive in Australia, I had to pay my bills, so I just had to keep quiet and keep going on.
SARAH WHYTE: Om started keeping a diary of his hours, recording his treatment. It showed he was working overtime every night but not being paid for it. He encouraged other cleaners to do the same.
And how much money do you think BIC owes you?
OMNARAYAN SHARMA: It’s all together around $6,000 they owe me.
SARAH WHYTE: BIC denies that they owe any money to Om, saying he was a union representative who resigned on good terms. They also say they were concerned about his job performance.
The union warn that BIC is just one fragment of a broken industry.
MEL GATFIELD, UNITED VOICE: The cleaning industry is a contracting industry and what you see is just a race to the bottom. Building owners put out contracts on very low rates and cleaning contractors have to complete to get those rates, and through that process, each part just plays off one against the other and cleaners are left behind.
SARAH WHYTE: 2015 has been a year of high-profile exploitation cases, mostly involving foreign workers.
The issue is so serious that a high-level ministerial working group has been formed
MICHAELIA CASH, EMPLOYMENT MINISTER: The exploitation of workers in Australia, whether they are foreign workers or Australian workers, is not tolerated. This government will be as tough on those seeking to exploit foreign and domestic workers as we have been on people smugglers. So be warned: the Government is on to you and we will hold you to account.
SARAH WHYTE: But according to BIC, this is not a case of exploitation, rather an attempt by the union to blackmail the company into signing a new cleaner’s agreement. BIC declined an interview with 7.30.
BIC claim that the union is running a blackmail campaign against them. What do you say to that?
MEL GATFIELD: We’re not trying to blackmail anyone. We’re trying to work with the industry. We went to BIC and said there is rampant underpayments in these sites. We looked at 11 sites, not all of their sites, we looked at a couple of hundred cleaners and we found systematic underpayments.
SARAH WHYTE: For Cheeravit, the way BIC treated him still haunts him.
CHEERAVIT KHAN (voiceover translation): I just plan to finish my study quickly and I want to go back to my country because I feel that this country is not a safe place for me.
SARAH WHYTE: BIC told 7.30 Cheeravit would be paid if he goes to the head office.
If you could say something to BIC now, what would you ask them for?
OMNARAYAN SHARMA: I only want to say that this kind of company need to get closed. They need to get closed. They – they should not – like, they should not be running till now.
LEIGH SALES: Sarah Whyte reporting.