WelCom News
A newspaper for the Wellington and Palmerston North Catholic Dioceses

A clean start for cleaners

Lee Tan

The plight of some of the lowest paid workers, cleaners, and the country’s reliance on them in the event of an epidemic was highlighted last month when the CleanStart campaign was launched in 10 cities across New Zealand and Australia.

In Wellington the 20 April launch took place at the Loaves and Fishes centre in Hill Street.

Workers and union officials spoke passionately about the need for a fair deal for cleaners under the banner: CleanStart: Fair Deal for Cleaners campaign in Australia and New Zealand.

Among the supporters were Fr Gerard Burns from St Anne’s Parish Newtown, Sr Catherine Hannan of Suzanne Aubert Compassion Centre and Sr Mary Hepburn, newly appointed to the archdiocesan Justice, Peace and Development office.

The campaign will help Pacific Islanders in New Zealand. Pacific Islands cleaner, Api Ielemia, told the Clean Start rally in Auckland:

‘Today is a big day for me and my community. I’m involved in the Clean Start campaign for the benefit of my family and my community.

‘I know it will make a difference. Today has shown that we can get support for cleaners and their communities around New Zealand and around the world.’ In Melbourne, Rhonda Galbally, told more than 200 people attending an enthusiastic launch of the Clean Start campaign:

‘I think we can clean up the cleaning industry in Australia by looking after the people who clean Australia.’

A cleaner’s life

Maria (not her real name) lives in a state house in Lower Hutt with her husband and seven children. Maria’s husband has a work injury from some years ago and cannot manage regular work. They are a Catholic family and their children attended Catholic schools.

Maria has been a cleaner for six years. Recently her working hours have gradually reduced from 44 to 28 hours a week. She earns $10.60 an hour. At her reduced income, even with the help of her husband’s ACC benefit and the government’s new Working for Families package, she struggles to make ends meet. On top of rent, household bills and her children’s education, Maria is paying off a car. She needs the car to get to and from work quickly and for transporting her sick husband and two pre-schoolers.

She hopes her full-time hours will be reinstated and that she is paid a decent wage so that she can get her family off the welfare benefits. She wants to be able to provide good care for her husband and put her children through quality education.

Maria’s experience with the cleaning contractor company is one of constant pressure.

‘All the company wants from us is to work harder and faster but they cut our hours. Then, when something is not done to their satisfaction they come and tell us to take time to do it properly. Where does time come from? I do not think they understand what we do and they do not appreciate us…’

Making cleaners visible

‘The Clean Start campaign will end the idea that cleaners are invisible workers, hidden in the dark shadows of the city skylines, whose plight can be ignored,’ SFWU Nga Ringa Tota National Secretary, John Ryall, said.

Most of us who work in inner city office buildings may never meet the cleaners who come in after everyone has gone home to their families and a good night’s sleep. Cleaners in commercial buildings work during the night, anytime between 6pm and 6am. Social isolation and personal safety are real issues facing cleaners who often work alone and have to travel between buildings in the middle of the night without a security escort.

When we leave work each day, we leave behind the full rubbish bins, dirty toilets, dirty carpet and often our dirty dishes in the kitchen. We usually take it for granted that some invisible person will take care of the mess. But, we are quick to blame the same invisible cleaners if we turn up to work and find the toilets uncleaned, rubbish bins still full or kitchen as untidy as it was the day before.

Little do we know of what happens to the cleaners when the building owner decides to hire a different cleaning contractor. We might be inconvenienced with a dirty office for a few days while the building owner negotiates terms with the new contractor. But this could mean that the cleaners lose their jobs, have their work hours cut or are forced to move to another building which may increase their travel costs.

Towards a Common Good

Market forces are creating ‘a race to the bottom’ with contractors competing for work at the lowest price leading to the greatest exploitation of workers. The Clean Start campaign is targeting the building owners on the basis that they have some responsibilities around common principles of fair wages and reasonable working conditions for the cleaners.

Contrary to a common myth, commercial cleaning is not simply an unskilled job. Cleaners have to cope with a complex range of chemicals and cleaning equipment and they must be able to apply a wide range of cleaning routines and techniques that we do not have in our domestic cleaning operations.

While the New Zealand public and people around the world are encouraged to prepare for the prevention and control of an influenza pandemic, we need to be aware of the important role our cleaners play in maintaining a healthy and infection-free office environment for us all. Our most vulnerable workers are entitled to be treated with dignity and we can help by supporting their campaign for a decent pay rise with secure and safe working conditions.

More – http://www.sfwu.org/

Lee Tan is a member of the SFWU (Service & Food Workers Union) Nga Ringa Tota Wellington executive and a parishioner at St Anne’s, Newtown.