Cleaners get a dirty deal

- Laurie Garnett

When the Contracts Act was repealed in 2000 it was hoped that not only would collective bargaining flourish, but multi-employer agreements (MECAs) would be rebuilt.

But with strikes outlawed except around bargaining, collective agreements can be a device for employers to lockdown wages and prevent strikes for years on end. A multi-employer agreement can do that too on a big scale.

There have been very few MECAs introduced in the past decade in the private sector. The Engineers Union Metals Agreement existed before the Employment Relations Act, and nearly all other MECAs have been public sector agreements.

One exception is the Service and Food Workers Union’s Cleaners’ MECA. With just 10% of the staff employed by the property services companies Spotless (7000 workforce) and OCS (4,000 workers) and ISS (several thousand) the union was not in a strong position. So how did they get the bosses to agree to a MECA?

In this case it was a deal that suited the employers. The cleaners on the agreement are paid just $12.55 (and $13.10 if they are experienced). In a period of labour shortages when it is possible to push for higher wages, the workers have been locked into a pay deal that is barely above minimum wage. For the employers at Spotless, OCS and ISS this MECA has been a means to put a stop to any competition among themselves over wages. And they got it very cheaply - at the expense of the staff.

Why are only 10 percent of cleaners in the private sector unionised? For a start it might have something to do with high union fees - $6 a week, and that members rarely see a union organiser. Many complain that when they call the union office their calls are not returned.

In contrast Unite union has a policy of regularly visiting sites where it has members and has a $2 a week union fee for places where people are on low pay. Unite’s focus is on leading struggles to win improvements. The results are apparent in all the areas Unite organises with significant gains.

The SFWU got good increases in the public sector where it was legislated for but this hasn’t transferred to the private sector where their members are locked into a shabby MECA.

The Clean Start campaign which lasted  two years has failed to lift the wages or to recruit significant numbers to the Service and Food Workers Union. It was a campaign that aimed to get building owners and employers to sign a piece of paper saying they supported “a better cleaning industry … with good jobs… fair pay, reasonable hours and safe conditions”.

Words are cheap. And so was the deal for the bosses.

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