The leftward and other blatherings of Span (now with Snaps!)

Monday, June 26, 2006

cleaning up

Jeremy has a post about a Time article showing the alarming difference in pay and conditions between unionised and non-unionised cleaners in the USA. It's a gap I see time and time again - when workers organise and bargain collectively they get a much better deal than when they try to go it alone.

When it comes to wages you don't get what you deserve, you get what you can negotiate, and your strength at the table only grows when you negotiate together.

Which seems like an excellent excuse to link to the Service and Food Workers Union's Clean Start campaign.

Cleaning is a crappy job (sometimes quite literally). But that doesn't mean the pay and conditions should match - if anything they should be enhanced to recognise that it is an undesirable and often unpleasant job (which is not to say that it isn't an enjoyable job for some by the way). It's physically hard too - aching backs, knees, calluses on the hands, plunging your fingers into very very hot or very very cold water, the caustic cleaning fluids, etc etc.

And cleaners make a big impact on our daily lives, although we often don't notice it. Almost every place you go out to will be commercially cleaned in some way. Movie theatres, shopping centres, hospitals, restaurants, buses, office buildings, even strip clubs have cleaners.

I'm going to make an admission here, one that will possibly make me hideously unpopular in some left circles - since I started back at work full time my partner and I have employed a cleaner once a fortnight to help us keep on top of things. The simple reality is that neither of us have the time or energy to clean much, and we can afford a cleaner so why not make life less stressful for us and create some work for someone else?

Before we engaged the cleaning firm I talked to the woman who runs it. We discussed their pay rates (at that time, a few years ago, about $11 an hour, which was low in general but not too bad for cleaning) and I was able to get a good sense of how this woman would treat her workers. She clearly genuinely cared about them and their welfare, and I was quite impressed. I thought she should be paying them more though, so silently decided to leave them a big tip each time, which I've done, so that they should be getting roughly $20 an hour I think (I'm not good at maths that involves fractions of 60). They make a huge difference to my quality of life and I try to leave them notes to make sure they know this!

Individual actions aren't going to change much for cleaners in general though. What needs to happen is for cleaners to get organised, work together and bring their invisible work out into the media spotlight. And not just to improve their pay and conditions but to get the respect they deserve, for doing the dirty work that so many of us create. It's heartening to see that process happening with the Clean Start campaign.


stef said...

Wy you would feel that employing a cleaner would make your unpopular anymore than say catching a taxi or a plane, or someone collecting your rubbish? They are all providing a service that you need

BTW tipping is great, and your cleaner will look after you because of it.

span said...

I agree with you stef, on the first part, but apparently I am supposed to be some kind of super woman, or somehow convince my partner that he really really does want to spend what little spare time he has doing his share. I've been frowned on enough to know that it's an admission that goes down badly, although I'm personally at a bit of loss to understand why. I certainly feel some White Liberal Guilt about it, but comments like yours help :-)

As for tipping - the problem is that sometimes it is used as an excuse by the boss to keep wages low. Tips aren't distributed fairly, so they don't really work as a performance based pay system either. For example, when I worked at a fast food joint the drivers were the biggest slackers out. Often I used to end up making and packing their orders, and cleaning up the dishes at the end of the night, which was part of their job not mine. But they never shared a single tip with me - I found out a few years later that they regularly got told by customers to keep the change, to the tune of quite a pretty penny each weekend. And yet I did a lot of their work for them, back at the shop, and didn't get a bean.

Make Tea Not War said...

I think you are very sensible to have a cleaner. We probably should too. Sometimes it really feels like all we do is work and then at the weekends try and get the house to a bearable standard, do the groceries and washing, and then it all starts again.

I've been using up some of my annual leave over the past couple of weeks and I've spent most of it cleaning the windows etc:- all the bigger chores we never have time to get round too. Its strangely satisfying but at the same time I think there are many other things I'd rather be doing.

stef said...

I suppose I've been out of country long enough to forget about how different attuides to work and service are in NZ. Most expats that aren't teachers here think nothing of hiring a phillpino maid to help out around the place. If I could find one in my bumblefuck town I would.

As for tipping, I do think that if someone goes out of their way to help me the best thing I can do is slip them some cash. I will also make a point of going to the manager and telling them how good they are which costs nothing. I do think that people should be paid a fair wage, but that we don't value service.