Judith Barber has enjoyed a secure job, steady hours and pay as a public school cleaner for more than 10 years, but fears that will change under a state government plan to change its cleaning contract arrangements.
Ms Barber, who lives in Macksville on the NSW mid-north coast, is among 7000 NSW school cleaners worried they will be short-changed for the number of hours they work under proposals to pay them according to the size of the space they clean.
The NSW government put its cleaning services contract to tender for the first time in May with a new contract set to begin from July next year.
School cleaners are worried they could be forced to reapply for their jobs on short-term contracts, without any guarantee of their hours. The government has said the current system of paying workers based on a fixed number of hours is "outdated".
"My main concern is not having the same job security and no guarantee of hours," Ms Barber said.
"We don't know where we are next year and whether we have jobs or not."
Ms Barber said she was helping support her daughter through university and paying a mortgage.
"This is a low socio-economic community where unemployment is at high levels," she said.
A spokesman for the Department of Finance, Services and Innovation said the existing contract provided cleaning services based on an "outdated, historical formula based on fixed hours at different locations".
"This has resulted in an uneven distribution of cleaning hours across locations of similar size and need," the spokesman said.
"It has not kept pace with industry best practice, which relies on a transparent, per square metre standard.
"The government is committed to upholding fair work standards and any new contracts will require our suppliers to guarantee workers' entitlements under the Fair Work Act and industrial relations legislation."
United Voice, the union that represents public school cleaners, says the NSW government is opening the cleaning contract tender with no guarantee existing cleaners will keep their jobs or regular hours of work.
The union's NSW branch secretary Mel Gatfield says the state government plan threatened to weaken protections around subcontracting and would attack the livelihoods of "some of the state's hardest workers".
"School cleaners are the hidden workforce that local school communities depend on every day," Ms Gatfield said.
"With the lack of sub-contracting protections and the expansion of the tender, new operators will flood the market. Regulation will become someone else's problem."
Ms Gatfield said a lack of oversight under a similar system in Victoria led to most cleaners being underpaid, in some cases as little as $2.63 per hour.
She said the Victorian government announced earlier this month that it would overhaul the contract "to kick out dodgy operators underpaying their workers".
"With the [NSW] government's planned changes our state's schools will be a mess of wage theft, dirty schools and illegal contracts," Ms Gatfield said.
The Department of Finance, Services and Innovation spokesman said the award of new contracts would include a three-month transition period between the outgoing contractor and any incoming company to allow a smooth transfer of employees between providers.
"It is important that public facilities are clean and safe," the spokesman said. "Any changes that may occur in the delivery of cleaning services will not impact on quality."
Cleaning services are delivered to about 4200 sites around the state under the whole of NSW Government Facilities Management contract which is due for renewal in July next year.
The contract costs more than $435 million per annum and includes the delivery of maintenance services to about 3000 sites.
Property NSW released a call for expressions of interest in May to procure a new contract.