A migrant who spends his days cleaning houses and business premises in Melbourne knows people don’t hold his work in high regard but finds consolation in a Chinese proverb.
“You ride the cow while you’re looking for the horse.”
Sin Loi, who turned to cleaning after eight years as a systems analyst, explains that the proverb means however rough the situation you’re in, you should keep focused on greater opportunities ahead.
The 60 year-old and his wife, Lisa, have been in the cleaning business for a decade now, but Mr Loi admits their line of work is “undervalued” by people “because it is just cleaning”.
Still, he says, “we take a lot of pride in the cleaning: we believe that if you’re doing a job you do it properly”.
Cleaning, Mr Loi says, does not require a great amount of skill. The most important thing is the way you approach the job.
“If you have the right attitude, you’ll clean everything and treat everything like your own home.”
A union representing cleaners and employees in a wide range of other occupations found that more than 80 per cent of 300 cleaners it recently surveyed were being paid below-award rates.
The union, United Voice, also found that contractors – using a network of “sham ABN” sub-contactors – were underpaying cleaners by up to $14,000 a year.
Mr Loi responds that he is not in the least surprised: “Because it is ‘cleaning’, people don’t put value on it.”
Businesses that use cleaning contractors do not properly value the amount of work, time and equipment required.
Mr Loi adds that this problem is not solely businesses’ fault, but also due to people’s attitude towards cleaners.
So consumers are also to blame, he says, as, although what many contractors do is wrong, they underpay workers because they have no other way of making their business profitable.
As he sees it, the competitive nature of the sector plays a part. A contractor who paid a fair amount would be unable to win a contract.
While agreeing with Mr Loi’s analysis, a spokesperson for United Voice says contractors should be upholding award rates.
The spokesperson points out that the workforce includes many vulnerable people: “Some have no choice, and when you are desperate your options become more limited.”
This does not change the fact that the average wage of a cleaner in Australia is significantly lower than the average Australian income.
According to the Fair Work Ombudsman, the weekly pay rate for a “cleaning service provider” ranges from from $742.10 at level 1 to $809.10 at level 3.
Even at level 3 this is still much lower than the average Australian weekly income of $1164.60 quoted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
According to a former cleaner now working in a cattery, many cleaners work “crazy hours to make ends meet”.
Zara Higgins, who has worked solo as a cleaner for seven years, says many contract cleaners work long hours because “you wouldn’t knock back jobs if you were desperate”.
Because of this they have little or no leisure time – so their family life suffers.
Mr Loi estimates that, combining time spent cleaning for their joint business and contract jobs, his wife works about 55 hours a week.
This is far more than the national employment standard maximum of 38 hours a week.
Lisa, whose son translates her words from Cantonese, says: “It needs to be done. … If not this, then what else can I do?”
Although Zara Higgins is now living her dream job working in a cattery, she retains good memories of her cleaning days.
For their part, Sin and Lisa Loi keep a constant eye on the future. Mr Loi says he doesn’t believe he will be in this job forever. He hopes there will be a horse somewhere over the horizon.