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Invisible no more: Janitors during the coronavirus crisis

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KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – One thing the coronavirus taught us is that many jobs we always thought important we can do without for a couple of months. And other jobs, in hospitals, grocery stores, gas stations, and so on, are actually crucial.  

The thing is, that’s typically not reflected in the wages these essential workers are paid or in the working conditions they face.

Janitors are very much among those unsung heroes. Because property owners, governments among them, contract their cleaning services out through a competitive bidding process the pressure on wages is downward, and it’s all about doing more with fewer workers. 

The coronavirus has changed everything

Omar Joof is such a janitor, he used to work at the Halifax Shopping Centre, but with so many stores closed because of the pandemic he now cleans at a large call centre in downtown Halifax.  

“The coronavirus has changed everything,” he says. “Health and hygiene have always been an issue for us, but with the emergence of COVID-19 the dynamics have changed. COVID-19 is a virus that can do terrible harm, it can even kill you.” 

“It’s always on our mind. Before I was redeployed somebody had tested positive at the call centre, and you think about it while at work. Then when you come home you worry about what you may have brought home. And not just for yourself, your family is also affected, there’s always tension there,” he says.

Meanwhile, office workers tend not to think a lot about the people who keep their workplaces clean. Even now, with all the focus on essential workers, frontline workers, etc., still janitors are a bit of an afterthought. Maybe that’s because unlike nursing, policing, etc. janitors don’t require a lot of education, Joof thinks. 

They’re also among the lowest paid, making minimum wage or slightly above, and unless unionized like Joof, without much protection and subject to being fired at the whim of the cleaning contractor.   

From invisible to essential

Now there is a campaign, aptly named From Invisible to Essential, initiated by Joof’s union, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to raise the wages and profile of janitorial workers.  The union represents over 10,000 janitorial workers across Canada, 

“We have seen lots of public praise for the role cleaners have been playing but those are really empty accolades. Nice statements, but  nothing following in terms of increased pay for what are some of the lowest paid members of our society,” says Tom Galivan, Secretary-Treasurer of the SEIU Local 2 and involved in the campaign.

“So our members were looking at how they’ve increased pay for grocery store workers, and other sectors of the economy. Meanwhile, they’re going to work every day, facing the risks of COVID-19. That’s why they wanted to band together and launch this campaign to get their issues out and win public support,” Galivan says. 

The campaign is asking for increased pay, increased staff to meet the more stringent expectations, and crucially, a safe workplace.

“A safe workplace is a responsibility that can’t be satisfied by simply saying to the workers, okay, here are some masks and make sure that you take steps to socially distance from each other. There needs to be a very detailed and thorough plan that encompasses everybody in that building, contractors, direct employees, tenants, service people, etc.,” Galivan says.

Contract flipping

Galivan wants all levels of government to take a lead role. 

“Governments are major building owners, and they can easily tell their cleaning contractors to make sure that their cleaners receive a premium, to be proactive around health and safety issues,” he says. 

“In Nova Scotia in particular we need legislation to establish successor rights and to stop contract flipping, so that when a new contractor comes in people don’t lose the gains they made through collective bargaining, or lose their jobs for that matter,” says Galivan.

See also: Protect workers against wage theft and contract flipping, unions tell government

Gary Burrill, the leader of the Nova Scotia NDP, agrees.

“The thing that’s at the top of many people’s minds is how crazy it is that we have in our economy people doing work that is essential to the fundamentals of infection control, who aren’t even making $15 an hour,” says Burrill. 

“We’re in this bizarre situation where janitorial workers are properly hailed as these heroes of healthcare who are looking after infection control and cleaning throughout our healthcare system. But they are actually often working for contractors that are paying them around $13.75. The government could in two minutes make this illegal, and they ought to,” Burrill says.

Joof, who has been a SEIU member for a long time, knows the benefits a union brings to his job. No arbitrary firing of workers, raises negotiated at the bargaining table and applied equally to all, equal pay for equal work, they make his difficult and dangerous job so much more bearable.

“Now more than ever we must make sure that janitors are paid livable wages, so that they can do a good job without being distracted by an inability to pay their bills,” says Joof. 

See also: Op-ed: Fair wages clause in Halifax tenders nothing but fluff

Check out the SEIU From Invisible to Essential web page and sign the petition calling on property owners, managers and cleaning contractors to take action.

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