This study examines how the risk of labour standards noncompliance can be rendered calculable and commensurable through a market device. We present a case study of the Cleaning Accountability Framework (CAF), an industry certification scheme, which seeks to address labour exploitation in the Australian contract cleaning industry. We pay particular attention to the central device of the certification scheme – the pricing schedule. We examine how the pricing schedule shaped the calculative space informing contracting parties during the procurement process. In doing so, the pricing schedule increased transparency around the potential risk of labour standards noncompliance. The nature of this transparency and the perceived objectivity of the pricing schedule acted to reshape the market for contract cleaning, resulting in a redistribution of accountability for labour exploitation. We also examine how the pricing schedule formed part of a wider framework of accountability, and how these mechanisms enabled strategic co-enforcement of labour standards compliance by supply chain stakeholders. Overall, our study indicates the potential for accounting practices to play a more active role in shaping how markets address modern slavery risks.
The cleaning industry has long had a reputation for exploiting workers, as cut-throat competition delivers contracts with profit margins so thin there’s little room to pay cleaners their legal entitlements.
The Cleaning Accountability Framework, with the help of a group of business, law and IT researchers, is making inroads into what has seemed at times an intractable problem.
Dr Martijn Boersma, who lectures in industrial relations and business ethics at the University of Technology Sydney Business School, has been working with CAF and says non-compliance with labour standards has been a big issue in the cleaning industry.
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 June 2018, the Senate referred an inquiry into the exploitation of general and specialist cleaners working in retail chains for contracting or subcontracting cleaning companies to the Education and Employment References Committee. A submission to this inquiry was made by the Centre for Social and Business Innovation at the University of Technology, and a colleague and myself participated in a public hearing in September 2018.
A growing body of evidence indicates the need for a consistent industry-wide approach for employment standards for cleaners; and the consideration of alternative business and employment models for the cleaning industry. Non-compliance with existing regulations right across the supply chain, have been found to disrupt tenant operations, and have resulted in negative outcomes for cleaners. These have included underpayments, the loss of superannuation payments, sham contracting arrangements, uncertainty and financial hardship. Addressing these issues will require a range of solutions, both regulatory and non-regulatory. While improved enforcement will address some issues, alternative business models and support for voluntary frameworks to establish industry-wide frameworks for employment standards pertaining to cleaners also have a role to play.