A living wage shapes up against $6.835 billion in profit

United Voice, the union that organises cleaners in Australia, has recently launched a campaign aimed at the Commonwealth Bank. Using the bank’s latest marketing pitch as their jumping off point, they have counterposed the Commonwealth Bank’s promise to their customers that they ‘Can’ make anything and everything happen for them, with the fact that the bank is engaging in employment practices that mean they ‘Can’t’ deliver a just wage and fair conditions for those who clean the CBA’s premises. It is not well known, but the CBA owns over 30 shopping centres in Australia (through its Colonial First State Asset Management arm) including the iconic Chadstone in Melbourne.

The CBA, like many other major private and public organisations, contracts out some of its lowest paid jobs like cleaning to other companies. The process of contracting out leads to declining conditions and very low wages for those employees who historically, of course, receive incredibly low remuneration. As British academic Jane Willis argues in her paper on the organising of cleaners in the City of London, the processes of subcontracting and privatisation has disastrous results for those employees:

The twin processes of privatisation and subcontracting merit particular attention… Privatisation and subcontracting mean that cleaners who used to be employed by large private or public sector organizations that adhered to collective agreements negotiated by trade unions have been thrown to the lions of the market. Moreover, even if they manage to retain union organization after privatisation or subcontracting … cleaners no longer bargain with the ‘real employer’[i].

As Wills notes in another paper on the question of a living wage:

we have interviewed hospital cleaners who don’t get sick pay and go to work when they are sick; we have met people who have young children at home and yet work two jobs in care and hospital cleaning so they can put food on the table, thus missing out on homework and life after school; and we have spoken to carers who are working long hours looking after other people’s families while neglecting their own.[ii]

In Australia, contracting out (and privatisation in those cases where staff were once employed by government departments) is growing. And it occurs in places many of us frequent every day. In addition to shopping centres, Australian universities are increasingly contracting out work like cleaning and security. These are roles that were previously subject to the same enterprise agreements as the library staff or school administrators, who had comparatively good conditions because of long-term union gains, but are now contracted to companies that must win tenders through bidding the lowest cost. Wages and conditions deteriorate when contractors are squeezed for each cent, often bidding amounts so low they know they cannot appropriately remunerate staff for the work that needs to be done. Contracting out also hinders the ability of unions to protect such workers, as workplace organising becomes increasingly difficult and often when work is contracted out the new company does not rehire the previous employees.

One of the responses from unions to contracting out has been to focus attention on the ‘supply chain’. While continuing to seek decent outcomes from the companies that win contracts, they also push the ‘real’ employer (those paying the contract) to ensure that worker’s rights and conditions are protected. It is for this reason that United Voice are focusing their campaign on the high profile, but back seat, employer of the shopping centre cleaners – the Commonwealth Bank.

Outworkers and Nike

Supply chain organising has occurred in other ways in Australia, such as the Fairwear campaign around outworkers. Launched in December 1996, but gaining prominence in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Fairwear was a coalition of churches, unions and community organisations that came together to take action over the exploitation of outworkers in the Australian fashion industry. Outwork is where people make clothes in their own homes, with their own equipment, without the usual occupational health and safety provisions of ordinary workplaces, and for extremely small amounts of money. Outworkers are almost always paid per item of clothing they sew, not the time it takes to do it. And, like with cleaners, managers and contract owners will deliberately underestimate how long a task takes to be done. This means for outworkers, the rate of pay per hour is well below minimum wage. In the case of cleaning staff at places like shopping centres, is can mean unpaid overtime and a ramping up of the pace of work, risking injury to staff.

In the Fairwear initiative, an Industry Code of Practice was developed and a campaign established that built on the educational and campaigning work of the Textile, Clothing, Footwear Union of Australia (TCFUA). The campaign involved traditional union organising, legal cases against major retailers with poor conditions (most famously Nike in Australia, which admitted to a number of unacceptable practices), and wider community organising and support. Although the campaign had started through the TFCUA and churches, it found growing numbers of university students who were inspired by high profile campaigns around sweatshop labour in the United States – such as those highlighted in Naomi Klein’s book No Logo.

A few years ago, when I interviewed Pamela Curr about her work in Fairwear, she put her motivation this way:

I was very aware of the inequity of a global luxury industry, like the fashion industry … I saw this global chain and you see how the input from the human being has been so diminished and denigrated that you’ve got clothing made for just a pittance because the cost of the fabric, in many cases, could be more expensive than the cost of the labour that goes into making the garment. And it distresses me to see that human beings are so diminished that the price of things is placed above their labour and their input and their creativity and their skill.

One of the short-lived solidarity efforts, organised mainly by students, is solidarity with the Fairwear campaign – a regular blockade of the Nike store in Melbourne. In the first half of 2001, weekly Friday night pickets of Nike’s superstore in the center of Melbourne ensured it had to close its doors. For a period of a few hours, protesters would blockade and stop shopping traffic to demand that Nike sign the Fairwear Code of Practice. Police were unsure of what to do, until one evening, after several weeks of the Friday blockades, five protesters were arrested. At the bail hearing police revealed that the protests were costing the corporation between $10 000 and $15 000 every time the store was blockaded.

Poverty wages

United Voice states that the minimum wage for cleaners in Australia is just $17.05 an hour. However, given the prevalence of cash-in-hand work in the sector, the real wages for many are as low as $10–13 an hour. For those forced to take cash-in-hand work, there are no sick leave or annual leave entitlements, and nor is there any government-required protection for injury sustained through work. In surveys undertaken in 2007 and 2010 by the cleaners’ union, 30 per cent of cleaners reported not being paid for all the work they do or for extra hours they have to put in to ensure their allocated work is done. Moreover, 53 per cent of cleaners state their wages are too low to meet the cost of living. Cleaning work is also insecure, with no guarantee of continuing employment if a contract is sold on to another party – and some staff work on month-to-month contracts with no possibility of permanency.

Joanne, a United Voice cleaner member who is the face of the campaign, states that in the last ten years she has received a pay rise of only $3 an hour. It was that particular fact that really shocked me. In a decade where the rising cost of essentials (which people on low incomes spend more of their pay on) has outstripped headline inflation, cleaners must be under incredible financial stress. Joanne has three children and lives on the poverty line, stating that in the period her wage has barely shifted her workload has increased dramatically.

United Voice is asking people who are concerned about the situation for cleaners, to help out on their campaign. They want the community to say to the Commonwealth Bank, that is it time for ‘Can’ for their workers. You can visit the campaign website, and sign the campaign petition. You can also keep updated on the union’s work with cleaners and poverty wages on their Facebook page, which also reports on the efforts of cleaners’ unions around the globe.

And remember, the Commonwealth Bank made a profit of $6.835 billion last year.


[i] Wills, Jane (2008) ‘Making class politics possible: Organising contract cleaners in London’, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 32, 2, p 310.

[ii] Wills, Jane (2009) ‘The living wage’, Soundings:  A journal of politics and culture, 2009, 42, p 40.

Elizabeth Humphrys

Dr Elizabeth Humphrys is a political economist in Social and Political Sciences at UTS, and the UTS Student Ombud. Her research examines work and workers in the context of economic crisis and change, including neoliberalism, climate change and workplace disasters. Elizabeth is an Associate of the Centre for Future Work at The Australia Institute. Her first book is How Labour Built Neoliberalism (Haymarket 2019).

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  1. I’m involved in the Clean Start campaign in Adelaide. Thank you for your support for the campaign. You are spot on with your comment that contract workers like cleaners cannot directly negotiate with their real employer, the property owner. A bigger campaign across unions for the right of contract workers to collectively bargain on an industry basis and the right to take protected action on an industry level would be a good start. Also protected action of bans and limitations on work should be allowed without employers standing down workers because their protected action includes limitations on the full range of duties. For example in the cleaning campaign, cleaners took protected action with escalating actions such as refusal to empty bins for two hours but were legally stood down for their whole shift and replaced with sub contract labor. This was all legal action by the employer under FWA

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