Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

Who Cleans Up? the Declining Earnings Position of Cleaners in Australia

Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

Who Cleans Up? the Declining Earnings Position of Cleaners in Australia

Article excerpt

Introduction

Over the last 20 years Australia has undergone a neoliberal transformation, characterised by the promotion of competition through public sector privatisation and labour market deregulation (Bray and Underhill 2009; Stilwell 2000). On a global scale the variegated nature of the neoliberal experiment has been far from an unmitigated success, though this has not stopped proponents from continuing with the policies at international, national and sub-national levels (Brenner et al. 2010: 2). While some argue that these policies have led to increased productivity and flexibility of the workforce, others find increasing evidence of a growing class of low-paid vulnerable workers (Baird et al. 2009; Cooper 2009; Masterman-Smith et al. 2008; Murray and Owens 2009; Peetz and Preston 2009; Quinlan and Johnstone 2009). Cleaners, as a subset of such workers, have been swept up in this wave of industrial relations decentralisation and public sector privatisation. State and federal government cleaning services have been privatised and similar services in the private sector have been outsourced or subcontracted, at the same time as the 100 year old employment system of collective bargaining and arbitration was being replaced, albeit unevenly, with a business-centric system of individualised and enterprise-based bargaining. Low-paid workers such as cleaners have experienced the impacts of an erosion of regulated minimum standards, the removal (and subsequent reinstatement) of unfair dismissal protection and constrained collective bargaining and rights to representation (Baird et al. 2009; Elton and Pocock 2008).

There are arguments that the dual impacts of industrial relations decentralisation and outsourcing of cleaning services in particular have led to a proliferation of contract cleaning companies competing for contracts on the basis of a price that is largely determined by how much is paid to workers (80-85 per cent of cleaning firm costs are labour related) (Ryan and Herod 2006). The result has been that cleaners in Australia are poorly managed and undervalued, and earn minimal wages as their employers compete for contracts in a 'race-to-the-bottom' (Ryan 2007). This dual pursuit of privatisation on the one hand and employment decentralisation and flexibility on the other hand has been manifested and felt in disparate ways in different jurisdictions, professions and industries. There have even been variations between different specialisations within one industry, such as CBD office cleaning compared with government school cleaning (Herod and Aguiar 2006: 11). This is evidence of what Brenner et al. (2010: 3) call variegated neoliberalism. Here neoliberalism is taken to be an historically specific, unevenly developed hybrid, a patterned tendency of market disciplinary regulatory restructuring. How this pans out in any particular industry or jurisdiction will be an unevenly developed pattern of restructuring through a succession of path dependent collisions, between market driven regulatory projects and inherited institutional landscapes.

A handful of qualitative studies in Australia has highlighted ways in which groups of cleaners have been adversely affected by neoliberal policy changes since the 1990s. To date, however, limited quantitative evidence has been produced that would allow analysis of how labour standards for cleaners have suffered in comparison with those for other occupations. In this article, we report on the first Australian analysis of quantitative evidence as to whether cleaners have been adversely impacted over the last 20 years. This study focuses on formally employed, full-time cleaners, that is, those amongst the cleaning workforce who are least likely to be vulnerable.

In the next section we outline recent arguments about the rise of variegated neoliberalism, which has led to the emergence of the networked economy, and its implications for the nature of work and employment in general. …

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