Exploitation of workers in Australia’s cleaning industry

By Fatima Measham

Next time you walk into a public toilet ask yourself how much you would want to be paid per hour to clean the place. Maybe $30? $50? Not enough money in the world could make you wipe a stranger’s bowl?

The 2010 Cleaning Services Award sets the minimum hourly rate for a Level 1 full-time cleaner at $18.46. It is not a lot for such a vital service. Imagine what our offices, schools and commercial precincts would be like without cleaners. Yet it seems too hard for cleaning companies to provide appropriate wages and work conditions.

Cases of unfair dismissal and underpayment now routinely emerge from the industry. Sham contracting – when bosses misrepresent employees as independent contractors in order to avoid paying standard entitlements – appears to be common. Last year, a cleaner for the Myer Melbourne store was dismissed after blowing the whistle on subcontracting that leads to underpayment. He was owed at least $7000 for three months’ work.

The problem is systemic. In June 2011, the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) found a non-compliance rate of 37.1 per cent in an audit of 315 cleaning companies. More than half of contraventions related to underpayment. At the time, there were 15,000 cleaning entities on the Australian Business Register. The impact becomes obvious when we calculate the non-compliance rate against the total.

The latest FWO annual report does nothing to dispel the issue, noting that the majority of litigations (42 per cent) concerned wages and conditions, with cleaning services featuring prominently in these cases along with the restaurant, retail and security industries.

Such exploitation may be explained in part by tendering processes that award cleaning contracts to the lowest bidder. This is, after all, how free markets work: minimum outlay for maximum benefit. It is a reasonable business focus.

But without any burden on property owners to ensure the cleaning company they contracted is providing appropriate wages and conditions, workers – real human beings – end up bearing the brunt of these arrangements.

Cleaners find themselves in an ignominious situation where their value is calculated according to the lowest wage that they can bear.

United Voice, the union representing the sector, found that 58 per cent of cleaners are international students. Most of them (79 per cent) do not understand that they have rights and entitlements. They express fear over losing their meagre income. A recent report by the Construction and Property Services Industry Skills Council also shows that most commercial cleaners are women (58 per cent), and that the most common level of educational attainment is Year 10/11 (31.4 percent).

Cleaning, like other minimum-wage jobs, lies at the nexus of certain vulnerabilities. It is the sort of repetitive, low-tech, zero-language skills labour that draws in people who do not have a lot of social or economic capital. This is precisely why they deserve protection.

There is meant to be dignity in labour – an exercise in agency, where work is the means for meeting needs and living a full life. Yet cleaners find themselves in an ignominious situation where their value is calculated according to the lowest wage that they can bear.