Monday, January 28, 2013

No justice, no peace: Westfield cleaners intensify their campaign for 2013

Vanguard February 2013

Shopping centre contract cleaners campaigning against Westfield and other major shopping centres are showing remarkable resilience in their protracted struggle for respect, a liveable wage, safe workloads and job security.

In 2011, in defiance of the isolated nature of their employment, these cleaners supported by their innovative union, United Voice, took protected industrial action against one of Westfield’s preferred contractors, Spotless. Westfield and Spotless responded with the use of sub-contract scab labour. Despite the sporadic nature of the strike action across several shopping centres across four cities, the action caused considerable media attention, but not enough to make Westfield buckle to cleaners’ demands.

Westfield weathered the storm, and when strike action came to an end in December 2011, they thought the cleaners were done, that they’d given up.

Westfield exposed as a public health risk


However, Westfield was way off the mark. Cleaners and their union, United Voice, hadn’t given up, they just changed their tactics. Cleaners understood that due to the anti-worker restrictions on industrial action in the Fair Work Act legislation, they would not win their campaign by industrial action alone. So they decided to ‘keep the powder dry’ on the industrial action front and then collected their first hand stories about the  threats to public health in shopping centres, caused by Westfield’s cuts to cleaning hours and cleaning staff.

When the cleaners reported the impact of these cuts to the health of the public, their union, United Voice, engaged qualified consultants to conduct bacteria tests in food courts, toilets and baby rooms in major shopping centres.

The union then released a Hygiene Report which exposed the alarmingly unsafe bacteria levels in shopping centre surfaces in the targeted areas. This proved to be a public relations nightmare for the slick Westfield media machine. They tried to trivialise the findings, and said that their hygiene standards were ‘rigorously enforced’. That this didn’t ring true with the concerned public was conceded by the actions of Westfield who passed the buck to their Shopping Centre Council to take the brunt of public criticism.  

For the cleaners themselves, the release of the Hygiene Report had the effect of expanding their support from tenants, the public, and especially parents using the baby rooms for nappy changes. Cleaners also found support from local Councils, with Councillors concerned about issues of public health. Hits on the union’s Clean Start web site and on line petitions escalated.

Westfield continued its public message of denial of responsibility towards contract cleaners in their malls, and repeated ad nauseam that they only engaged responsible contractors to maintain centres at a high standard of cleanliness.

Westfield exploits overseas students

Soon after the “hygiene storm’ subsided, the cleaners and their union released another damning public report about Westfield’s treatment of cleaners. A study by United Voice and TAFE Victoria found that overseas students working as shopping centre cleaners were subjected to underpayment of wages by as much as $250 per week, as well as abuse and racism and impossible workloads.

Again Westfield tried the denial line.

Westfield trembling in their boots despite brave public face
United Voice followed up the overseas student report with a plan for 2013 to popularise a new Westfield Watch web site.

The web site links exploitation of different groups by Westfield – tenants, cleaners, shoppers and community groups. It is an example of a union thinking outside the square when campaigning against the biggest shopping centre chain in Australia, if not the world.

The campaign has even attracted active support from the conservatively led Shop Assistants Union, which is unable to ignore the actions of a minority group of contract cleaning workers within a much larger group of retail shop assistant workers employed by major Westfield tenants.  

This is Westfield’s worst nightmare. Giving in to cleaners’ demands for a living wage, respect and a fair workload will raise questions in the minds of thousands more exploited retail workers in Westfield and other shopping centres.   

2013 will be an interesting year of struggle at Westfield centres.
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