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Modern slavery, the severe exploitation of people for personal or commercial gain, has long been an issue in this industry. And most recently, this vulnerable workforce has unwittingly been placed on the front line due to COVID-19 and are under even more risk of exploitation. 

However, game-changing initiatives such as the Cleaning Accountability Framework (CAF), cofounded by AustralianSuper, are tackling modern slavery at all touchpoints of the supply chain and helping to mitigate the negative impact of COVID-19 on cleaners’ workplace rights. 

Taking action against an exploited workforce

Modern slavery in the cleaning industry is a global problem that’s both complex and systemic. About 150,000 people work as cleaners in Australia, but it’s a largely hidden workforce made up of vulnerable members of the community. 

Poonam Datar, Chief Executive Officer of CAF, says the cleaning industry employs many migrant workers, some of whom are on temporary visas. 

‘One of the common issues we see is immigration-related threats, coercion and deception, which are criminal offences,’ she says. ‘Often workers can be threatened into working longer hours or taking less pay because the employer or supervisor says they’re going to report them to the authorities.’ 

The 2019 International Students and Wage Theft in Australia report by the Migrant Worker Justice Initiative found that 77% of international students were paid below minimum wage, and 32% of bachelor’s degree students earned half the minimum wage or less. 

Most students in the study knew they were underpaid but believed it was their fault for breaking the law. And 38% of students said they didn’t speak up because they didn’t want ‘problems that might affect my visa’. 

The outsourcing of cleaning work and complex contracting agreements also make the industry susceptible to exploitation. 

‘As soon as you create a separation between management and the worker you start to lose a bit of sight on what’s happening with that workforce,’ Datar says. 

She explains the exploitation is driven by procurement practices that reward rock-bottom pricing. 

‘That puts the employer in a difficult situation because in order to win work, they need to put forward a low price bid, which means they can’t pay their workers the right amount,’ Datar adds. ‘They have to cut corners to be able to win work. 

‘It feeds the exploitation, and as soon as you feed exploitation, you increase the risk of modern slavery.’ 

Understanding the impact of modern slavery

Sandra Silea, senior analyst in the Environmental Social and Governance (ESG) team at AustralianSuper, says the most concerning part of modern slavery is the impact on the individual. 

‘Modern-day slavery is pretty much the worst outcome for the individual,’ she says. ‘If you’re subject to poor labour practices through your working life, that impacts your long-term financial and life outcomes. 

‘If these practices proliferate across different sectors, it has a negative impact on the labour force overall.’ 

AustralianSuper is a responsible investor that advocates for ethical and transparent workplace practices in the companies it invests in and across the supply chains.  

‘We have a long-standing program of integrating labour force and human rights considerations into the investment decision-making process and stewardship activities,’ Sandra adds.  

‘If you’re structuring your business in a proper way, making sure workers are equitably treated, are getting all of their entitlements and feel valued, then you see that enhanced cultural sentiment in the business, and people are more likely to be productive and stay with the company longer – and that benefits the bottom line.’ 

‘Conversely, any business that’s predicated on poor labour practices isn’t going to be profitable in the long term because at some point there will be negative economic outcomes, whether it’s regulatory or reputational.’ 

> Read AustralianSuper’s FY20 Modern Slavery statement  

Launching CAF – a world first focus on improved labour standards

CAF was founded in 2013 by AustralianSuper, the United Workers Union and a coalition of industry members. It’s a world-first, multi-stakeholder organisation aiming to improve labour standards in Australia. 

CAF’s cohort of businesses, government, unions and academics has recognised the problem of systemic and serious exploitation of cleaners and identified a long-term solution at industry level.  

That solution is a Building Certification Framework (assessed against an industry-developed CAF 3 Star Standard) with a focus on continuous compliance and empowering workers. 

To ensure ethical practices, it involves all touchpoints across the cleaning supply chain: cleaners, tenants, contractors, property owners, facility managers, and investors. 

‘Because exploitation is rife throughout the cleaning industry, you’re never going to affect long-term change if you’re just working with one or two stakeholders,’ Datar says. ‘The scheme is designed to work across the industry so that cleaners who move between buildings or companies can be assured of their labour conditions wherever they go.’ 

Silea says there are two reasons why AustralianSuper is invested in eradicating exploitation. 

One is about protecting the 89,0001 AustralianSuper members working in the cleaning industry from exploitation, to help ensure they receive their benefits in retirement. 

‘It’s important that members and the rest of the community have fair working conditions and access to all their entitlements, including their superannuation.’ 

‘Secondly, as an investor, we fundamentally believe that environmental, social and governance (ESG factors) have the ability to impact long-term value for the investments we make. When it comes to the cleaning industry, it’s really important for us as an investor to make sure these poor practices are alleviated so we can create long-term value for our members who have entrusted us with their financial retirement outcomes. Everything we do is in members best interests, to help them achieve their best financial position in retirement.’ 

Having the demand for change coming from the top of the supply change, at investor level, is an incredibly powerful tool, Datar says. 

‘If an investor goes to a fund or property manager and says the building under their management must be CAF certified to comply with its social-impact strategy, it’s as straightforward as that,’ she adds. ‘It sends a clear signal to the real estate market that if you want to continue getting these sorts of investors on board, then you need to be managing your ESG risks.’ 

Engaging and empowering cleaners

Educating and empowering a vulnerable workforce is a key part of CAF’s work. 

‘Cleaners are your eyes and ears on the ground,’ Datar explains. ‘From a risk-management perspective, if you’re not consulting with your workers or if your workforce isn’t empowered to speak up, then you’re never going to effectively manage that risk.’ 

Silea says the building certification framework is making a genuine difference at an individual level. 

‘The feedback we’re getting is that workers are starting to have candid conversations with their employer about workload and resourcing, which weren’t happening before,’ Silea says. ‘So we’re really seeing systemic change down to the individual worker level, and I’m really proud of that.’ 

The impact of COVID-19 on the cleaning industry

COVID-19 thrust this already vulnerable workforce into the spotlight and onto the frontline. 

‘We heard stories of families struggling to put food on the table and having to take on extra shifts in new buildings,’ Datar explains.  

But, she adds, there were also stories of humanity. 

‘We heard of cleaners saying, ‘I want to give some of my shifts to that worker, because I know they’re really struggling and can’t get financial assistance, so I’m happy to give one away to someone who really needs it.’ 

Datar says that unsustainable workloads, denial of sick leave and lack of worker voice have become even more of a problem during the pandemic. These exploitative practices lead to poor-quality cleaning, risk of infection spread, and health and safety issues not being raised. 

survey by the United Workers Union in May last year found that 77% of cleaners were worried about losing their jobs amid COVID-19, and 80% were worried about losing hours. 

It also revealed that 90% of cleaners were rushing to complete essential cleaning work, and 80% didn’t have enough equipment during COVID-19. 

This was in stark contrast to those working in CAF-certified buildings. 

CAF survey from April 2020 of cleaners working in buildings certified by CAF found that 88% of those who had seen their workload increase said there had been hours or staff added to compensate, 94% felt that adequate health and safety measures were being taken, 92% had enough personal protective equipment and 97% were given enough chemicals and equipment. 

‘At a time when everyone is operating in such a difficult economic environment, the cleaning industry and cleaners have become more important than ever because the resumption of normal life and the resumption of the economy is reliant on making sure you have a clean and sanitised workplaces, public spaces, community areas and so on,’ Datar says. 

And while COVID-19 may have been the catalyst for public conversation around the issues faced by cleaners, Silea says AustralianSuper has always considered these issues to be urgent. 

‘The fire in our bellies has already been there for years and years,’ she adds.  

And Datar agrees that a focus on the cleaning industry is long overdue. ‘Cleaners do a job that we’re so reliant on for our own health and wellbeing and that of the general community,’ she says. ‘It’s important that we recognise the important role cleaners play in society – and show that we value their contribution.’ 

This article was written by AustralianSuper in August 2021 This may include general financial advice which doesn’t take into account your personal objectives, situation or needs. Before making a decision consider if the information is right for you and read the relevant Product Disclosure Statement, available at or by calling 1300 300 273.  AustralianSuper Pty Ltd ABN 94 006 457 987, AFSL 233788, Trustee of AustralianSuper ABN 65 714 394 898.   

Cleaning Accountability Framework Ltd.