Fr Gerard Burns
The first theological questions asked by Catholic social teaching (CST) are: What is the situation of commercial cleaners? What is their reality?
While there might be various answers to these questions CST looks particularly to the social location of cleaners as some of the lowest paid and least respected workers of our society. They are also mostly from migrant and marginalised groups.
CST understands God to have a special love and preference for the poor and seeks to see the world through the eyes of those who are least socially powerful. Cleaners clearly come into this category. Non-unionised cleaners even more so.
In our money-dominated society a job with decent pay is the essential way for most people to support themselves and their family. There is clear evidence of the growing gap between the highest and lowest paid workers.
This means a growing gap in terms of opportunities, education, healthcare and so on. Taxes do not provide sufficient services to cover these differences. The growing overseas ownership of cleaning companies operating in NZ complicates the situation of local cleaners.
Some argue that differential wage rates are a reward for skill levels and educational achievement and provide an incentive to achieve. There is some truth in this in the context of our competitive capitalist society.
However, there are important skills involved in the cleaning industry especially the knowledge of cleaning products and machinery. It’s ironic that the people who keep our bathrooms, offices, hospital wards and streets waste-free (ensuring a hygienic environment so the rest of us can be ‘productive’), are rewarded the least.
If cleaners are not properly paid, the justice that God wishes to reign in our world is lacking.
Perhaps some of the difficulties faced by cleaners come from our deeper ambiguities about dirt.
The old saying that ‘cleanliness is next to Godliness’ underlines the importance of hygiene in human lives. It also implies that where there is not cleanliness then God is not there.
This attitude has deep roots in human culture. In the Bible we see powerful boundaries around physical, ritual or moral cleanliness.
Some foods were considered unclean, coming into contact with blood could make someone unclean. To be ‘unclean’ meant in some sense to be outside the community.
While we now distinguish more between moral and physical health, perhaps we still associate those who are cleaners with being unclean themselves and unworthy of respect. If so this is an unfair prejudice.
The campaign to see that cleaners – particularly in the commercial sector – are paid fairly is something the Catholic community can fully support from many points of view.
One is the right of workers to receive a just wage to support them and their families in a dignified way. This is a standard point of modern CST.
Wage-setting is not something that should simply be left to the laws of the marketplace where the more powerful set the parameters.
Another consideration is that the cleaning industry is one of the prime ways for migrants to enter the workforce and the mainstream – they can begin to build a future for themselves through hard work in the cleaning industry.
Having decent wages and conditions is then a way of welcoming the stranger – of welcoming God.