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.
Underpayment is becoming an increasingly prevalent issue in Australia, with certain industries and sub-sets of workers more affected than others. Given the increasing prevalence of wage theft, workers can become resigned to accept employment below the minimum wage due to expectations that underpayment is unavoidable. While the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) plays a key role in identifying and rectifying underpayments, increased funding is required to allow it to effectively uncover breaches. Both mandatory and voluntary supply chain measures can play a key role to help target the issue of underpayment. Our submission recommends new legislation be passed to better regulate labour standards and the gig economy, strengthening enforcement of existing regulations.
This week an already impressive list of wage theft offenders has gotten a bit longer.
On Monday, the likes of Caltex, 7-Eleven, Pizza Hut, Domino’s Pizza and Bunnings (to name a few), were joined by Coles, which underpaid its staff $20 million over six years.
On Wednesday, Target admitted to underpaying workers about $9 million.
On Thursday, Super Retail Group – whose brands include Rebel and Super Cheap Auto, said that it had short-changed workers by $8 million more than it had originally estimated, bringing the total to $61.2 million.
On Friday, cleaning and catering company Spotless admitted to underpaying workers $4 million.
The total wage theft uncovered this week: $94.2 million.
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.
The Australian horticultural sector is one of the most at-risk industries for modern slavery.
A recent survey by the National Union of Workers among 650 workers found severe underpayments and withholding of wages, excessive overtime, retention of identity documents, threats of and actual physical and sexual violence, and coercive and excessive payments for transport and board.
A group of academics, experts in the area of labour and human rights, modern slavery, and supply chains, have initiated an open letter in which they ask Coles and Woolworths to address labour exploitation and the risk of modern slavery.
Australia’s Modern Slavery Act requires businesses to report yearly on the risks of modern slavery in their operations and supply chains, the actions taken in response, and the effectiveness of these actions. The first reporting cycle started on July 1.
Unfortunately, although companies and consumers are increasingly aware that modern slavery exists, it is a phenomenon that is often dismissed or misunderstood.
A Senate inquiry has revealed that wage theft and underpayment are so prevalent in some industries that they have become the norm. Around 79% of hospitality employers in Victoria, for instance, did not comply with the national award wage system between 2013 and 2016.
Regulators and unions don’t have the resources to combat this issue, and so we need another method to tackle wage exploitation. One way is to introduce a multi-stakeholder certification scheme, using market forces to reward companies that have committed to fair working conditions and punish those that don’t.