You may recall a time pre-pandemic when you were at the office or doing the shopping and you crossed paths with a cleaner. You may have said hello, exchanged a few words with the smiling courteous person who was likely from a non-English speaking background and who outwardly appeared to be a happy person who is getting a fair go. But, looks may be deceiving, given the longstanding history of systemic worker exploitation in the Australian cleaning industry.
Research and auditing of cleaning supply chains has found that wage theft is commonplace and usually stems from procurement practices that reward the cheapest bid. Developing industry-wide benchmarks around ethical and sustainable procurement and empowering cleaners to speak up are key to the Cleaning Accountability Framework’s (CAF) mission to end exploitation in the industry.
Let’s go back to the ‘happy cleaner’. This person is likely to be an international student who is paying tens of thousands of dollars to study in Australia to qualify for a visa, living in overcrowded accommodation on the fringes of major cities, and working two jobs, one as a cleaner (on the books) and one as a kitchen hand (paying around $15/hour cash in hand). While student visa holders are generally only allowed to work 40 hours per fortnight, they are taking on extra work in breach of their visa conditions in order to make enough money to pay their education fees, support themselves and any family in Australia, and support their family in their home country. They got their job as a kitchen hand through the cleaning supervisor who is well connected in their community. The cleaner is paying part of their wage back in cash to the supervisor as a sort of recruitment fee, which they know is unlawful but will not speak up out of fear of losing their job and being reported to the authorities for working in breach of their visa conditions.
This fear of deportation means that the worker is likely to accept dangerous and substandard working conditions in both of their jobs, and they will continue to do their job quietly and behave in a manner that appears ‘happy’ to avoid attracting unwanted attention. So how can this unfair situation be addressed and avoided in future? CAF Building Certification is a mechanism that helps mitigate the risks of worker exploitation in cleaning supply chains. Through the process of CAF Certification, CAF and the union representing cleaners, United Workers Union, brings cleaners together to educate and engage them about their rights and empower them to present pathways for remedy. We take the time and effort to build trust with cleaners, knowing the vulnerabilities they face, but we also build trust with the cleaning contractor and building owner to make sure they can support cleaners when they do raise workplace issues.
The cleaner may not say anything the first or even second time we meet with them, but they will build confidence over time as they see their peers speaking up and eventually will be in a position to raise the cash back issue, most likely with the support of their union. Unfortunately, the situation with the second job relies largely on legislative changes regarding certain visa holders. However, owners can contribute to overall better living conditions for workers by funding higher rates of pay for their cleaners.
Cleaners have been essential to our health, safety and wellbeing while at work and out in the community, and we should show how much we value and respect cleaners by ensuring decent work and living conditions.