The Australian cleaning industry has come under scrutiny for being at risk of modern slavery in a new book which draws links between consumers, business and government, and an estimated 40 million people who are modern-day slaves.
Addressing Modern Slavery explains the global conditions that have allowed slavery to thrive to the point “where there are more slaves today than ever before in human history”.
Authors Associate Professor Justine Nolan from UNSW Sydney and Dr Martijn Boersma from UTS describe well-known examples from overseas, such as women in apparel sweatshops and children in brick kilns – but also examples that are closer to home.
The authors include a submission from a former cleaner to the Parliamentary Inquiry into Establishing a Modern Slavery Act in Australia who noted exploitation in the cleaning industry is very common.
In 2017 a Sydney cleaning company that provided services to Bunnings, Wilson Parking and NSW Ambulance was fined $370 000 and ordered to back-pay more than $AU220,000 to the 49 employees.
The Fair Work Ombudsman said the matter “involved dubious “labour hire” arrangements, corporate structures and sham contracting arrangements that were used … in a calculated attempt to avoid responsibility for vulnerable workers’ entitlements”.
In the verdict, Justice Katzmann stated many of the workers were foreign nationals on temporary visas, including student visas which restricted the number of hours during which they could work.
“Many had limited English language skills and were unlikely to have been familiar with Australian labour laws. Many, if not all, were struggling financially. Several had been unemployed for some time before securing work with the company.
“Some were treated by [the company] as slaves. 18 of the 49 employees in respect of whom compensation was sought were not paid anything for periods ranging from two weeks to two months”.
“It is crucial to realise that everyone has a slavery footprint, depending on your lifestyle, and what you own, wear and eat,” the authors write.
Understanding the connection between purchasing and investment decisions and modern slavery is the first step towards change.
Associate Professor Nolan said Addressing Modern Slavery will help consumers, business and government to understand how they are all part of the problem – and the solution.
“We wrote this book to expose a practice that is not a phenomenon confined to dark corners of the economy, but something connected to all of us,” Associate Professor Nolan said.
Dr Boersma said the nature of global supply chains means modern slavery can affect every aspect of our lives.
Companies that source through supply chains are not responsible to workers at suppliers and subcontractors in the same way as they are to direct employers.
The book also mentions the Cleaning Accountability Framework (CAF), a multi-stakeholder initiative aimed at safeguarding social standards in the cleaning sector.
“As the barrier of entry into this industry is low, many workers come from vulnerable communities and area at risk of falling victim to abusive employers,” states the book.
“Years of competitive tendering has resulted in cleaning companies offering unrealistically low rates in an attempt to win contracts to clean office buildings. Rates were then often cut further by subcontracting work to even cheaper service providers. This cutthroat competition intensified workloads and resulted in cleaners being systematically denied entitlements.
“Based on aggregated data from office buildings across Australia, an acceptable ‘productivity rate’ was established using statistical methods. The methodology considers factors such as the amount of floor space and the type and number of facilities such as bathrooms and kitchens. In doing so, it can identify when a cleaning contract for a building results in extreme workloads, or when tendering rates are so low that wage payments below the legal minimum are likely.”
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