Every day corporations across the globe welcome affluent executives into beautifully maintained, spotlessly clean offices. Few stop to think about the lives of the unseen, poorly paid cleaners who keep their offices this way.
This week, workers from around the world stood together to draw attention to exploitation within their industry and to focus attention on the long-running strike by South African cleaning workers.
Cleaners from as far afield as Sydney, London and New York took part in protest action, targeting multinationals such as JP Morgan, KPMG and Bayer, to express solidarity with their South African counterparts.
On Wednesday morning, cleaners gathered outside JP Morgan’s London offices, distributing leaflets calling for the company to place pressure on its South African branch to improve salaries for contract cleaners.
”Large multinational corporations can play a positive role in how these workers are treated,” says Cynthia Kain, press officer for the United States-based Service Employees International Union (SEIU).”They set policies on how their buildings are maintained and they have a responsibility to these cleaners.
”They can be an impediment to cleaners or they can assist them in escaping poverty.” The protest action coordinated by the Union Network International (UNI), took place in places as diverse as Chicago and The Hague.
”Global firms such as Bayer and JP Morgan have remained largely on the sidelines — content with cleaning companies’ efforts to keep cleaning jobs low-paid, dead-end jobs,” says Kain, adding that ”last year, Bayer, for example, recorded profits of $2-billion. JP Morgan had profits of $8,5-billion.”
In South Africa, office cleaning is largely outsourced and workers are often on fixed-term contracts with little or no job security. The minimum wage in metropolitan areas is R8,05 per hour.
The action has the full appreciation of South African cleaners’ unions. ”This aims to let the world know what is going on. To expose this will benefit the sector and subsequently the unions,” says Ronny Mamba, spokesperson for trade union Satawu.
William Boateng, a Ghanaian cleaner working in London, was one of the protestors who gathered outside JP Morgan this week to raise public awareness around the battle facing his colleagues in South Africa.
”We also do the same cleaning and we are looked down upon and not properly treated,” said Boateng. ”We are the least paid people in the world and when we see cleaners taking part in action we want to show our solidarity with our brothers in South Africa.”
Ademola Eniola, a Nigerian cleaner in London, says the action aims to draw attention to the plight of cleaning workers across the globe. ”They have turned cleaners into second-class citizens in every country. They forget that if a city is neat it is the work of the cleaners,” says Eniola.
The other unions involved include the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union, Sydney, Australia; the FNV Bondegenoten, The Hague, Netherlands; Verdi, Hamburg, Germany and the SEIU, Chicago, New York City, Pittsburgh and Boston.