Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Cleaners Rising Up

Cleaners around the country are some of the most lowly paid and precariously employed members of the working class.

For several years, United Voice (formerly the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union or LHMWU) has been organizing these workers in its Clean Start campaign, winning impressive victories around some of the capital cities’ CBDs.

Now the campaign is getting out to major shopping centres in the suburbs.

A case in point is the Chadstone Shopping Centre in suburban Melbourne.

Like workers throughout the cleaning industry, Chadstone workers have been subjected to an intensification of their labour by their profit-hungry bosses, putting the public at risk as short-cuts are taken particularly around toilets and food courts.

Gamal Babiker(above) has been a cleaner at Chadstone since 2000 and said conditions had got worse over the last five years.

He said the budgets for training and health and safety had been cut as shopping centres pushed for tighter and tighter contracts.

What happened yesterday is that cleaners went on strike at lunch time only for an hour or two and as they went out a large group of community supporters went in. Those in the photos include United Voice delegates who held their annual convention yesterday. As part of their training and skills development they were bussed down to Chadstone shopping centre to get some practice in community support action!

Apparently Westfield locked the doors to the Centre after about 80 community supporters had walked inside, leaving about another 80 demonstrating on the outside. In other capital cities including Adelaide, cleaners are taking short strike action supported by community including sit-ins, cavalcades around the centres, balloons, leafleting shoppers etc.

Spotless, backed by the Shopping Centre Council are showing no public signs of giving in, so it could be a long fight. The Shopping Centre Council is actually arguing for a reduction in retail workers’ wages through ‘freeing up’ penalty rates on weekends.

So it is not surprising to see them pushing a hard line on cleaners’ demands which include increasing the base rate from the award $16.57 per hour to $21.17 per hour which is the rate cleaners in the Clean Start CBD have won.

The irony is that Spotless are a party to the CBD Agreement and major players in the Shopping Centre Council like Colonial First State, Stockland and Dexus are ‘funding’ Clean Start rates in their commercial cleaning contracts in the CBD.

The difference between the CBD and retail shopping centres is that most of the workers in CBD offices are salaried or on EBAs and well paid compared with cleaners who clean those buildings.

But retail, thanks largely to the tame cat union Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Union (SDA) is a low wage industry with many workers on $17 per hour or less as junior rates apply in retail. There are no junior rates in the cleaning award.

The SDA, led for years by a right-wing Catholic clique, spends most of its time and a large chunk of membership fees in factional influence inside the ALP.

The biggest ‘threat’ to the big retailers is they don’t want an organized workforce and that is what campaigns like Clean Start give, an opportunity to organize.

A far sighted big retailer would have settled already, but maybe their reduced sales and retail slump over-ride their thinking.