Bringing cleaners the justice they deserve

Today is a day that is marked in my calendar as “International Justice Day for Cleaners”.

Unfortunately for many cleaners the aspiration for justice is not seen, heard or talked about for the other 364 days.

“I’m a cleaner and I get up at 3am every morning for work,” says Tania from NSW. “We live from pay to pay with no chance at saving any real money. It would be nice to have emergency money for those times your car breaks down or your hot water system needs replacing.”

Or this is Maria in Queensland: “I am a single mum who works as a cleaner but my pay is only enough for rent. So I have to work at least 10 hours a day just to pay for food, petrol, electricity etc.”

There have been positive developments that give Tania, Maria, and thousands of other cleaners reasons to believe that justice is not out of reach.

The Fair Work Ombudsman has shown in recent years that when it comes to large corporations and large cleaning companies it will not put up with sham contracting and other poor corporate behaviour.

This year the Fair Work Ombudsman has exposed underpayment of supermarket cleaners in Tasmania and underpayment of MCG cleaners.

In Tasmania, cleaners for Woolworths supermarkets were being paid as little as $7 an hour for “training” and $14 an hour for cleaning – well below the minimum wage.

The Fair Work Ombudsman wins build an increasing awareness that wage theft is a crime that should be punishable to the fullest extent of the law.

The Ombudsman is sending a clear message to companies using cleaners that they must not turn a blind eye to poor behaviour by their sub-contractors.

The results also strongly signal that companies hiring cleaners should take responsibility that their sub-contractors are reasonably paid.

But it shouldn’t have to come to lengthy court actions or wage recovery measures by the regulator to find justice for Australian cleaners.

Fortunately, there is another way that promises cleaners a path to ethical treatment, completely in line with the groundwork being laid by the Fair Work Ombudsman.

This is where the Cleaning Accountability Framework (CAF) comes in.

The Cleaning Accountability Framework (CAF) brings together building owners, cleaning companies, facility managers and the cleaners themselves in a bid to stop what has frequently become a race to the bottom for pay and conditions.

CAF takes a “supply chain” approach to the issues confronting cleaners with a certification scheme for buildings that use commercial cleaners.

Organisations of the stature of Australian Super, the Commonwealth Fair Work Ombudsman, UTS and United Voice have signed up with key industry players to make CAF a practical reality.

It gives large investors and companies the tools they need to take responsibility to understand the impacts of their contracting practices on employees throughout their networks.

It allows the building owner to look through the ”competitively priced” contract they are being offered to clean a building and understand how the workers are being treated.

And it helps the cleaning multinational look through the cut-price contract they are being offered by a $2-shelf-company sub-contractor to understand how much the workers are being paid.

The CAF ratings system aims to ensure cleaning contracts for buildings meet rigorous standards in relation to wage payments, tax and superannuation payments, record keeping and workplace health and safety.

At the end of the day, a CAF certification gives everyone – investors, building owners, cleaning companies, facilities managers, employees and the public – confidence that a contract is “best practice”: delivering the required cleaning service while cleaners are treated fairly and with respect.

When fully implemented, CAF – through its members’ actions - would bring accountability for the pay and conditions of cleaners to the very highest levels of the supply chain.

It is no small ambition, but CAF aims to bring justice to cleaners for the other 364 days in the year.

Poonam Datar is CEO of the Cleaning Accountability Framework (CAF), an independent, multi-stakeholder initiative that seeks to improve labour and cleaning standards in Australia.