Yarra pays unemployed to clean streets

By Paul Hemsley

The City of Yarra has activated an ambitious project to tackle long-term unemployment and social disadvantage by replacing private cleaning contractors with labour sourced from high-rise public housing residents.

A partnership between council and social welfare activists the Brotherhood of St Lawrence, the project has created traineeships for public housing tenants and aims to reduce costly property damage like vandalism and graffiti.

The initiative represents a significant change from the traditional mindset of throwing increasing amounts of council money at external service providers to fix problems. Instead, the City of Yarra has started looking within its own community for solutions.

An increasingly prominent issue for Melbourne’s local governments has been the necessity to provide support services and opportunities for economic inclusion for refugees from war ravaged countries like Somalia and Sudan.

A key feature of the Yarra’s new employment project is that it offers demonstrable benefits for council as well as residents facing employment difficulties.

An ageing workforce at the council depot, an inadequate recruitment strategy and an unsatisfactory street cleaning contract that was close to expiring all contributed to need to come up with an innovative solution.

City of Yarra manager [of] engineering operations, Kim O’Connor, said that memorandum of understanding signed with the Brotherhood of St Lawrence would bring cleaning services that were previously outsourced into council hands.

Mr O’Connor said the BSL employed trainees from housing commission high rises to work in council’s street cleaning division.

“The BSL was going to employ people who were disadvantaged and long term unemployed people to give them the ability to find work,” Mr O’Connor said.

He said the council had two traineeships available for graffiti removal services and had employed an additional eight people in the street cleaning program.

Under the agreement between council and BSL, trainees are employed for a 12 month period.

According to Mr O’Connor, the arrangement meant that council would pay their salary, as the trainees would be paid a trainee wage because it was a service program.

“We basically transferred them into our own employment, so they became staff working directly for the City of Yarra; after we did that, we were looking at bringing other services in-house,” Mr O’Connor said.

The project is entirely council funded with no additional money from the Victorian government.  Apart from trainee remuneration, around $6000 per trainee is also required for needs like truck licences and traffic management costs.

Another hurdle for the City of Yarra has been getting formal recognition for the pre-existing skills of its new workers.

Even though the Sudanese and Somali employees were builders, welders, mechanics or even chemists in their home countries, those qualifications are usually not recognised in Australia.

The council’s next challenge was making sure that English classes were made available outside of work hours. In the case of training for truck licences, some workers didn’t even have a drivers’ licence, according to Mr O’Connor.

Although there have been some minor cultural issues and adjustments to absorb, these were far from insurmountable.

“We haven’t had too many racial issues and if we have, they’ve sorted themselves out with people being down-to-earth communicators because they’re all good workers,” Mr O’Connor said.

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