Who cares about cleaner living?

Some of you may know of the story related by the famous psychiatrist specialising in death and dying, the late Dr Elizabeth Kübler-Ross. She described how she had noticed that some of her patients in her hospital in Chicago were happier and more at peace on certain days. She discovered that this coincided with the days that an uneducated elderly black cleaning lady sat on their beds, occasionally held their hands and chatted and laughed with the patients. In particular there was one dying lady on oxygen who was in pain and in denial about her impending death who expressed concern to the cleaner that plugging in the vacuum cleaner might spark an explosion. The astute cleaner recognised this worry as a call for help with her fear of dying and seized the moment to explore her thanatophobia.

Kübler-Ross approached the cleaning lady and asked “What are you doing with my patients”? The cleaning lady, thinking she had done the wrong thing and might be sacked, could hardly utter a word but eventually revealed that she had endured poverty and tragedy for most of life, especially the death of her three year old son whilst awaiting treatment for pneumonia. The cleaner explained that “…dying patients are just like old acquaintances to me, and I’m not afraid to touch them, talk with them, and to offer them hope.”

This event occurred around the time that Kübler-Ross advertised for an Assistant. She received about 5000 applications including professionals with higher academic credentials and qualifications than herself. But she offered the position to the cleaner who had demonstrated the empathic skills she was looking for. 

What a different story it would have been today if the practices of employers of cleaners today were being used then at the Chicago Hospital. For example a ‘wand’ that might be magic to management has become the bane of the lives of some cleaners in Victoria. This was one of many issues revealed in a report by the Uniting Care Creative Ministries Network.

A wand is a gadget that some cleaners have to use to send a signal to a receiver to indicate the starting and finishing the cleaning of an area. At the end of the shift a computer analyses the information and indicates the number of areas cleaned. Kübler-Ross’s cleaner would have probably been sacked having scored badly as she was distracted from her cleaning by going the extra mile by responding to a human need. The survey of 380 cleaners working in Victorian shopping centres by the staff of United Voice  from April to August 2011 revealed that nowadays they have to more than focus on their core business as they are under increasing pressure to perform as a consequence of outsourcing. As one cleaner explained “they underquoted everything when they bought the shopping centre contract”. As reflected in the title of the report ‘Cutting Corners’, the more contract cleaning companies compete within the tender specifications that are set within the narrow economic parameters of the shopping centre owners, the more they contribute to the ever increasing pressures on their staff. 57% of those surveyed felt stressed about their workload. The report refers to studies that link working under these conditions is unhealthy so there is a price paid by the workers for adopting this widespread practice of outsourcing. A brief scan of the literature reveals that several studies refer to the efficiency gains with refuse collection (Boyne 1998) but there seem to be few studies showing that competitive tendering is more financially efficient when applied more widely. In one review it was made clear that in the UK the motivation for compulsory competitive tendering was not based on evidence but the political ideology of the Thatcher government and its privatisation agenda (Hodge 1999).

For the cleaners surveyed in Victoria this ideology that has become the norm has resulted in, “… minimum labour standards, labour cost-cutting, and increased workloads to protect and enhance the profits of property owners/ managers and cleaning contractors [that is] is a failure of corporate social responsibility. It puts too many cleaners’ health and safety at risk, contributes to tension and conflict in their families, provides an inadequate wage for today’s cost of living, and is flirting with public health and safety.”

The report indicates that the pay for a level one cleaning service employee, the level at which most shopping centre cleaners is employed, is $629.50 per week, according to the Cleaning Services Award (2010). This is significantly lower than the updated poverty line for 2011, which, “inclusive of housing costs, … is $835.30 per week for a family comprising two adults, one of whom is working, and two dependent children.”

Whilst the effects of work stress are referred to in the report, another relevant and famous study is of Whitehall Civil Servants by expatriate Professor Sir Michael Marmot (Marmot et al. 1991). He found a strong association between grade levels of civil servant employment and mortality rates from a range of causes. Men in the lowest grades had a mortality rate three times higher than that of men in the highest grade. It is important to note that none of the civil servants were living below the poverty line implying that the mortality rate would be even higher. Living below the poverty line accounts for some of the following results from the survey with long term health consequences as intimated from Marmot’s research. Over half the cleaners reported the following financial difficulties: 64% can’t afford to visit the dentist, 56% have had trouble paying for groceries, 53% have experienced difficulty with rent or mortgage repayments, 53% sometimes have trouble paying medical expenses and 53% can’t afford to buy a house.

It is not surprising that a report that is compiled by a religious organisation will make recommendations based on breach’s of religious social ethics but it is likely that similar suggestions would emanate from a health impact assessment of the work practices that have led to the results of the survey.  For example from the 1891 Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII on Capital and Labor “…It is neither just nor human so to grind men (and women) down with excessive labour as to stupefy their minds and wear out their bodies”  and “justice, therefore, demands … that they who contribute so largely to the advantage of the community may themselves share in the benefits which they create….”

Unfortunately this report reveals that the trickle down theory – as expressed by the economist John Kenneth Galbraith by saying “if you feed enough oats to the horse, some will pass through to feed the sparrows” – is just rhetoric. It is ironic that the trickle down effect has been demonstrated not to work in facilities that have been described as the temples of consumption where it is argued that the consumption of material goods has taken on near-sacred values. Perhaps this accounts for the pride that some cleaners get from making the customer (worshiper) experience a satisfying (spiritual) one. Viewing this with a pseudo-health rather than non-secular lens, the ‘disease’ that is being described is ‘affluenza’ which is more prevalent than the infectious diseases that the cleaners may be preventing by their efforts. The status-fuelled affluenza epidemic occurring within the ‘temples’ may exaggerate the feeling of inferiority as people “cannot keep up with the Jones”, but more concerning is to learn of the rude or abusive behaviour from managers or supervisors that occurred towards about a quarter of the cleaners surveyed.

Hopefully this report and the Clean Start: Fair Deal for Cleaners campaign will address the issues for cleaners working in Victorian Shopping Centres and set a precedent for the rest of Australia to follow. It will help give a voice to those who have been meek in their demands. So to end on a non-secular note “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5) and this is not unrelated to the fact that the author of Blessed Unrest, Paul Hawkin is speaking at the UWA Summer School. Perhaps he will inform us of an unprecedented movement to help counter the Affluenza epidemic (as well as global warming) that has helped create this injustice experienced by cleaners in the first place.


Boyne, G.A., 1998. Competitive Tendering In Local Government: A Review Of Theory And Evidence. Public Administration, 76(4), pp.695-712.

Hodge, G.A., 1999. Competitive Tendering and Contracting out: Rhetoric or Reality? Public Productivity & Management Review, 22(4), pp.455-469.

Marmot, M.G. et al., 1991. Health inequalities among British civil servants: the Whitehall II study. The Lancet, 337(8754), pp.1387-1393.