Academic journal article Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies

Forced Flexibility and Exploitation: Experiences of Migrant Workers in the Cleaning Industry

Academic journal article Nordic Journal of Working Life Studies

Forced Flexibility and Exploitation: Experiences of Migrant Workers in the Cleaning Industry

Article excerpt


The cleaning industry is one example of a labor sector where the conditions of work have been particularly affected by forces of globalization and what may be defined as the effects of neoliberal policies (Bernstein 1986; Herod and Aguiar 2006). The demands for cost-effectiveness have led to increased competition, outsourcing, and subcontracting. As a result, work in the cleaning industry has changed from mostly permanent employment to increasingly flexible and temporary jobs. Flexible staffing arrangements are generally used by employers to minimize costs (Houseman 2001). Many of the effects of globalization seem to be less positive for those actually doing the work, the cleaners (Ryan and Herod 2006; Seifert and Messing 2006). Cleaning is inherently a form of low-skilled and low-paid employment (Öhrling 2014; Tarkkonen 2010). As a result a high share of those who work as cleaners today are migrants, whose possibilities of accessing other jobs are limited due to their lack of language skills and contacts, their immigration status, and, in some cases, their lack of education (Abbasian and Hellgren 2012; Könönen 2012). Many migrant workers are multiply disadvantaged in the labor market also in Finland (Forsander 2013). This may make them particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of the structural changes in the labor market. With increased competition, some employers will attempt to cut costs through infringement of the rights of workers. It is evident that those who are the most powerless will be the most severely affected by such transgressions of labor rights and standards.

This article focuses on the experiences of migrant workers within the cleaning industry in Finland. The article draws on interviews with migrant workers, and interviews with representatives of employers and the trade union for the service sector. Although different actors have been interviewed, this article gives voice in particular to the migrant workers themselves. When talking about their experiences of working as cleaners in Finland, the migrant workers gave accounts of hard work on poor terms and also of exploitation and misuse. The employers, on the other hand, spoke of having no choice but to submit to the fierce competition in the sector, while trade unions criticized the employers for exploiting the most vulnerable and powerless of workers.

It is evident that the structural changes in the cleaning industry-such as increased competition, the disappearance of permanent jobs, privatization, and segmentation- play out in different ways for employers vis-à-vis employees. Building on an analysis of the interviews with migrant employees, trade unions, and some employers, this article seeks to answer two specific questions: How do migrant workers experience their working conditions in the cleaning industry in Finland? What kinds of labor market practices make migrant workers vulnerable to exploitation in the cleaning industry? In seeking an answer to these questions, this article discusses the experiences of migrant workers from their point of view. The central concepts in this article are flexibility, vulnerability, and exploitation. The article links exploitation with globalization and structural changes in the labor market, which have led to a situation where the demand for flexibility on behalf of the workers disproportionately affects the most powerless. These workers are often migrants with few other options than to accept work on disadvantageous terms. This article further shows that various misuses of migrant workers are related to more serious forms of exploitation, including, at worst, trafficking in human beings. Although all exploitation is of course not equivalent to trafficking, the difference between 'mere' exploitation and trafficking is fluid.

Labor market policies and labor market changes

The Finnish labor market is characterized by a tripartite bargaining structure, bringing together government, trade unions, and employers' organizations. …

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