The government is being accused of sneakily trying to cut commonwealth cleaners’ pay by overriding laws backed by the parliament.
Labor thought it had a win on Thursday when the Senate agreed to amend a non-contentious, but technically complex, public governance bill to drop changes to conditions for government-employed cleaners.
The move was intended to spare the cleaners a $4.50 cut to their hourly pay, prompting celebration.
But on Friday, Labor’s triumph appeared to be void.
Before the bill passed with Labor’s amendment, the government’s Senate leader Eric Abetz signed “an instrument” abolishing the guidelines – gazumping the opposition move, The Australian reported.
That wasn’t mentioned during upper house debate on the bill.
A spokesman for Senator Abetz confirmed the government wanted to scrap the guidelines but wouldn’t provide further detail.
“The government supported the opposition’s amendment to get the PGPA bill through the parliament, we never said that we supported the guidelines,” he told AAP.
Abolishing the guidelines would not force cleaners to take a pay cut as they would still be covered by their existing contracts, he said.
Labor and the cleaning union say the secretive move is cruel and underhanded and would force commonwealth cleaners back to the award rate – a drop from $22.02 to $17.49.
“The government has set a new low with actions that are deceptive, sneaky and arrogant,” manager of opposition business Tony Burke said.
It’s not quite clear if the move will work but if so it would appear to render Labor’s amendment redundant.
The cleaners union, United Voice, said commonwealth cleaners had been left shocked by the government’s actions.
“Today cleaners face the future with anxiety and uncertainty,” United Voice acting national secretary David O’Byrne said.
The government says it wants to scrap the Labor-created guidelines, which only apply to 20 cleaning contracts nationwide, as part of its mandate to reduce red tape.