Sydney cleaners protest against firm's job offer for coronavirus work in Japan

Stephanie Convery
Photograph: Charly Triballeau/AFP via Getty Images

Cleaners dressed in hazmat suits and face masks entered the Sydney headquarters of services giant Broadspectrum on Thursday to protest at the company’s lack of transparency surrounding recent offers of coronavirus-related cleaning work to its employees.

The protests came after reports this week that cleaners contracted to work in New South Wales government schools under Broadspectrum were offered work cleaning novel coronavirus quarantine areas in Japan.

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The offers initially came by text message, offering an “all expenses paid” trip to Japan to “earn some good money” cleaning. Some cleaning staff said their supervisors then offered the work in face-to-face meetings with them, and that they were offered between $5,000 and $6,000 for the work.

Some workers were told they would be cleaning the coronavirus-riddled cruise ship Diamond Princess in Japan for six days. Others were told they would be cleaning the quarantine station that housed staff and patrons after they had disembarked from the ship.

Broadspectrum has since told media they would not be working on the Diamond Princess.

The United Workers Union (UWU), which represents the cleaners, said they were yet to confirm where workers were actually being asked to clean.

Georgia Potter Butler, an organiser with UWU, said the protests were sparked by the “haphazard” way the offer was made to staff and the question marks over the basic conditions that would be provided to those who took up the job.

More than 50 people attended the protests, with workers and activists entering Broadspectrum’s Parramatta premises at about midday and protesting for around half an hour. They were evicted after a fire alarm was activated and the building evacuated.

The union was concerned about the hours of work required of those who took up the offer, the conditions under which they would be required to work, the lack of specific training, and the lack of health screening of volunteers for pre-existing conditions that may make them extra vulnerable to the virus.

Upon their return to Australia, the workers would also be required to spend 30 days in quarantine, unpaid.

“We don’t understand why it’s cost-effective to fly school cleaners from NSW, put them up for six days over there and have them off work for a month rather than hire local workers,” Potter Butler said.

“Broadspectrum just haven’t come out to assuage any of our concerns.”

UWU believes up to a dozen people may have taken up the offer, despite the union advising otherwise.

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“These are really low-paid workers – an opportunity to earn a bit of extra money did entice some, who were literally packing on Monday night to get on the plane,” Potter Butler said.

The union said it understood that the NSW schools cleaning positions would not be backfilled.

A Broadspectrum spokesperson told Nine newspapers on Tuesday that it took the safety of workers “very seriously”.

“All of our people who have nominated themselves to support the quarantine efforts in Japan will go through the highest level of medical safety advice and support before and while working there. They will be working from a sanitised facility provided by the Japanese government, not located on the Diamond Princess. This will be under the strictest safety and medical processes managed by Aspen Medical,” they said.

A NSW education department spokesperson said: “The department is confident Broadspectrum will fulfil its contractual obligations. The company’s arrangements with its contractors are a matter for those parties.”

Guardian Australia has approached Broadspectrum for comment.