Irish trades union SIPTU campaigns for cleaners

28th of November 2011

European Cleaning Journal editor Michelle Marshall visits the trades union representing contract cleaning workers in Ireland - SIPTU - to find out about how it started  its successful Fair Deal for Cleaners campaign earlier this year.

The cleaning sector in Ireland is remarkably diverse in that it employs people from many countries around the world - there are over 20 nationalities in Dublin alone. Representing staff in the cleaning industry is the trades union SIPTU, based in the capital city, and earlier this year it decided to target the sector specifically with a campaign that became known as Fair Deal for Cleaners.

ECJ visited the SIPTU headquarters to find out more about the background to the campaign, and how it attracted media attention throughout the country. The campaign organiser is Ethel Buckley, and she explained how vital it was for the union to target the contract cleaning sector specifically in order to achieve any success.

"The cleaning industry came to our attention because of a very nasty dispute in 2008 at one of Dublin's most famous public buildings - which was a government contract at the time. A non-unionised cleaning contractor was then appointed and attempted to reduce terms and conditions, in breach of TUPE regulations. SIPTU put a picket on that building, a group of extremely determined women campaigned against the changes and eventually won their case. A unionised contractor then took on the job."

She continued: "Problems around TUPE came to the fore in Ireland in the early 2000s, when mass immigration from new EU member states started. Ireland was one of the few countries to have a completely open border and all workers were made welcome to our labour force, and to our trade union.

"However, we were concerned employers would use the immigrants’ vulnerable status to exploit them and to drive down wages and conditions in unionised sectors. As predicted, service industries became undermined."

Bitter dispute

Matters were brought to a head in 2005 when there was a bitter dispute concerning Irish Ferries, which wanted to replace over 500 members of its existing workforce with agency workers. A national day of protest over the broader issue of job displacement was held and that brought over 100,000 people out onto the streets of Dublin.

It was as a result of this unrest and under the Social Partnership Agreement that the Irish government formed the National Employment Rights Authority (NERA) - with the aim of working towards a national culture of employment rights compliance.

Buckley explained: "In 2008 NERA started to release statistics about the various industries it dealt with, obviously related to employment rights. Contract cleaning came out as one of the worst sectors, based on inspections it carried out. Among the worst areas of non-compliance were employment law, statutory rates of pay, holiday pay, breaks and working time."

This put the spotlight on the cleaning sector in Ireland for the first time, so SIPTU decided to fund a Fair Deal for Cleaners campaign. "The unionised, responsible contractors were fully supportive of what we were doing because they were being undercut by those businesses not complying with regulations. We also felt it was time to tackle this sector because it’s very much in the country to stay – it can’t be exported – and it’s extremely labour-intensive."

Before a successful campaign could be started, however, the issue of union density had to be tackled. Trades union membership across the cleaning industry was fairly low, with variances according to the sector the cleaners were working in – hospitals and the public sector were more unionised for example.

Buckley explained: "We rely very heavily on activists (we call them 'leaders') and we needed to develop those in order to get the campaign going. As it was, SIPTU was not reflective of the industry today, in that there were too many Irish members. We had to make ourselves more reflective of demographic changes."

Lead organiser for the union is Gerry Flanagan, who was responsible for much of the face-to-face contact SIPTU has had with the cleaning staff. Having worked in other industries prior to joining the cleaning campaign, he quickly realised they would have to adopt a different approach.

"Traditionally we have met with large groups of around 100 people, but we knew that with the cleaning sector that would not work. We needed to identify leaders and have more intensive engagement on a smaller scale. So typically we were speaking to groups of between three and four people.

"We would have two organisers present – this enabled us to establish the likely support and assess how much involvement we would have in the workplace. We could identify leaders on each site and develop their leadership skills, giving us a basic infrastructure to move forward with."

SIPTU representatives then carried out 500 one-to-one meetings with cleaners in order to ascertain the issues of most concern to them. They expected wages to be the number one concern, so were surprised when it was actually number seven on the list of points surveyed.

"One of the early messages we got from cleaners was that they lacked dignity and respect," continued Flanagan. "They feel cleaners are invisible and their work is undervalued. People don’t see them as human beings – that’s how they feel. Often nobody in the building where they work even knows their name." Also high on the list of complaints was lack of communication. "It was also interesting to note cleaners are often dissatisfied with the quality of products supplied to them with which to do their job."

Having established the issues the cleaners wanted to address, it was time to take the campaign public. Here, SIPTU found it was those cleaner 'leaders' themselves who proved to be most effective in putting their case forward. "Therefore we equipped them with the skills to convey their own message," explained Flanagan, "with media training and any other back-up they needed."

That approach has proved to be highly successful - those leaders have appeared on TV, on radio and even in parliament, all as part of the Fair Deal campaign. "We have been honoured to discover that some of our cleaners are exceptional leaders," said Gerry. "And their message is much more powerful than any from a trades union leader. It has inspired an extremely positive response."

On International Justice Day in June SIPTU member cleaners were extremely proactive around the streets of Dublin and gained significant media coverage for the Fair Deal campaign - this included an interview on prime-time TV about how cleaners' work is undervalued. The union also signed a Responsible Contractor agreement with market leading service provider ISS.

Buckley explained the background to this. "SIPTU has found a persistent problem of non-compliance with employment law in the cleaning sector. However we do now have a core of firms that are committed to better methods. Being recognised as a 'responsible contractor' means ISS complies with all rules and regulations related to its workforce."

Union responsibilities

She went on: "The company also encourages interaction between trades unions and its cleaners, and itself positively engages with SIPTU rather than simply tolerating it." The union is now keen to invite other credible firms to join the scheme and Buckley is highly aware of its own responsibilities in entering into an agreement of this nature. "My part of the bargain is to talk to every cleaner at the company, organise them and implement an infrastructure. And of course, to deliver a product that is of real benefit to all parties."

Buckley and Flanagan say the Fair Deal campaign is inspiring some real change within cleaning companies and when those changes take place, it's quickly noticed by the staff. "Simple measures like consulting the cleaners before major changes are made are very much appreciated by the workforce," Flanagan pointed out.

And SIPTU has seen membership in the cleaning sector improve dramatically - it says the number of representatives has increased 10-fold in just one year. Not only that, attitudes among business owners to the trade union are gradually shifting and SIPTU says some employers now see unionised sites as being the least confrontational, and the ones that operate most efficiently.

"Because everything is organised, staff are on a level with each other and they act as a group. Historically, contractors are not used to dealing with unions productively but now employers increasingly see that we have spent a long time gaining understanding of how the market works."

Buckley is keen to emphasise: "Of course we understand that cuts sometimes have to happen on a contract but we expect to be involved in negotiations and consultation. And if cuts in budget must be made, then the specification for the cleaning contract must be amended accordingly."

The campaign is currently focused only in Dublin but Flanagan has ambitions to take it nationwide if resources allow. In Dublin he would like to achieve 70 per cent density over the campaign’s term, which is set at three years. Many of the companies involved in the Dublin initiative operate in other parts of Ireland, however Flanagan is realistic about the potential limitations for cleaning companies and the issues they face in terms of price pressure etc.

"We acknowledge that conditions need to improve for them too in order for real, widespread change to take place."


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