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Thursday, 5 January 2012

Cleaners ditch their brooms and cloths and go on strike. No more 'clean acceptance' of their diminished wages and labor circumstances.


I have an confession to make: I was a cleaner at the time I was 20. I wanted to have some vacation money and the temp employment agency in my neighborhood offered this job to me, at the largest steel mill of The Netherlands: De Hoogovens (now Tata Steel Ltd (TATA)).

In that time I thought: well, if you become a cleaner, then you better be a good one. I broomed, vacuum-cleaned, polished and mopped my butt off. People working at the steel mill were smiling at me: “You are working too hard, son. You're all sweaty”. But after a less succesful temp job as dishwasher in a bulky restaurant near the beach, I had to proof myself again.

And I had a good time at the Hoogovens; it was honest work and I had a minivan at my disposal to drive from one building complex to another. And although some maintenance departments managed to get everything dirty and greasy again in just over one hour, every time I left a place, it was shining like a mirror.

In those days cleaning was a job that was executed by a mixture of people from Turkish, Morrocan and Dutch descent. People that had a Dutch background and spoke adequately Dutch. Some liked their job and some didn't, but as I said, it was honest work and it was not something to be ashamed of.

During my official career as an ICT professional that started in 1992, I saw the cleaner evolve from Dutch-speaking people of different descent to (mostly) East-European and African people from countries like Rumania, Bulgaria, Albania, Nigeria, Somalia, Kenya and others.

People that hardly spoke Dutch and had no connection whatsoever with the company or the people that they were working for. The cleaners became the invisible men and women of today; mostly ignored, as nobody takes real notice of them, while they don't speak enough Dutch or English to express themselves. They are eternal outsiders in a world of insiders.

These were the ideal folks for a genuine 'race to the bottom' where it concerned cleaning tariffs and wages. Initially there was a mandatory minimum wage that these people had to receive.

However, professional cleaning and general services companies that were put under extreme pressure by their corporate customers (banks, insurance companies, healthcare institutions, large manufacturing companies and the government) to lower their prices, found creative ways to avoid the mandatory minimum wages of their workers. For instance by turning their cleaners into independent workers, or by paying them a fee per cleaned object.

Especially the ABN Amro, the Dutch state-owned bank, used all kinds of guerrilla tactics to reduce the costs of their cleaning services companies right after the hostile takeover by the troika of Banco Santander SA (STD), Royal Bank of Scotland Group PLC (RBS) and Fortis-bank. Notorious was ABN Amro's letter to all cleaning companies, in which they demanded: 'we want a substantial part of the money back that you earnt from us, or else...'.

ISS, a large cleaning company in The Netherlands and other cleaning companies capitulated and returned the money, effectively paying to stay in business at ABN Amro (link in Dutch). This move of ISS shocked and outraged the largest labor union of cleaners, FNV Bondgenoten (www.fnvbondgenoten.nl).

And now, for the second time in a few years, the cleaners are fed up again with being at the bottom of the financial foodchain, ditched their brooms and cloths and went on strike. Who can blame them for this?!

The Dutch financial newspaper Het Financieele Dagblad (www.fd.nl) writes on this story. Here are the pertinent snips:


FNV Bondgenoten, the Dutch labor union, expects to mobilize between 1800 and 2000 striking cleaners for a march that leads them through Amsterdam and ends at the office of a large principal in the cleaning industry.
 

During the last cleaner's strike in 2010 that lasted for nine weeks, about 1000 cleaners were striking at the peak of the protest action.

The actions follow after the failed Collective Labor Agreement negotiations (i.e. CAO) with employer's organization OSB (i.e. Organization of Cleaning Companies). Managing Director Rob Bongenaar of OSB thinks that the FNV demands too much from the industry with a wage increase of 5% and continued payment in case of sickness, additional education and reimbursement of travel expenses. According to OSB, the whole package means a wage increase of 12%

Mari Martens of FNV Bondgenoten takes the view that the actions are mainly aimed at principals that increase the working pressure for cleaners to intolerable heights. She speaks of a struggle for emancipation for the cleaner that is still not treated with respect.

While the general number of 2000 strikers might not look so impressive, you must remember that these people are mostly 'strangers in a strange land' trying to earn money for them and their families at home. Uniting and striking is for most of them the last thing to do. 

And although I can't be called a particular friend of the labor unions, in this case I happen to agree with FNV Bondgenoten. In a matter of 20 years, the cleaning industry and the people that work in it have changed into the dump pit of corporate The Netherlands:
  • we don't want to see them;
  • we don't want to speak with them;
  • we only want to pay them as little money as possible;
  • and when they don't do their job properly or take too much time for it, they will be the victim of our wrath.
It is time that this attitude towards the cleaning industry changes. The cleaning industry itself must help by giving their workers a proper education and especially helping them to learn Dutch. You only comprehend people when you understand them! You can take this from a former cleaner that was proud of his job

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