Australians go into bat for Kiwi cleaners

By Greg Ansley

At the end of the month Michael Crosby will fly to the other end of the world to seek a better deal for New Zealand workers. Distance, though, is not the big deal here: it is the fact that Mr Crosby is an Australian, employed to look after Australian unionists.

Mr Crosby has already been to see bosses in Australia to seek their help in dealing with their counterparts in Auckland and Wellington. And the workers he represents have been on the streets on behalf of their Kiwi colleagues.

Remarkably, the Australians want New Zealand employers operating in a far more union-friendly environment to adopt the approach taken by Australian arms of the same companies in the new industrial world of Prime Minister John Howard's Work Choices legislation.

Mr Crosby and the Australian Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Union (LHMU) recently hosted John Ryall, national secretary of New Zealand's Service and Food Workers' Union (SFWU), who will also later fly to London and Copenhagen in his efforts to convince large British and Danish companies to adopt in New Zealand the same union-friendly policies they have installed at home and across the Tasman.

New Zealand contractors dispute the unions' claims, saying that most of the Australian initiatives already exist here in law or codes of practice, that pay differentials have been distorted by rises in the minimum wage, and that union representation is far greater in Australia.

But the unions' argument is already helping to shape thinking in Wellington, where Labour Minister Ruth Dyson is studying Australian agreements to see how they might be adapted to New Zealand, as part of the Government's broad plan to improve the lot of low-paid - frequently migrant - workers.

The unique transtasman union battleground in this case is the cleaning industry, dominated on both sides of the Ditch by the same group of major players: the British multinational OCS and Denmark's ISS - which between them control almost 20 per cent of the sector in Auckland and Wellington - and big Australian and New Zealand companies.

The workforce in both countries is similar - largely unskilled and migrant with poor English-language skills. In New Zealand it is marked by Pacific Island workers such as Auckland cleaner Pooi, a 35-year-old Tongan, who arrived in 1997 and speaks limited English.

He has been a cleaner for five years, working a split shift of five hours in the morning, starting at 5am, and five at night, from 6pm to 11pm.

He earns $400 a week, to support a wife and four children aged 1 to 9, and is looking for more part-time work to fill the gap in his days.

"I need to do more," he said, with the help of an interpreter. "I can't afford to support my family."

Sue Lafaele, a 38-year-old Samoan, works at Auckland Airport for major transtasman cleaner Spotless. She leaves her South Auckland home at 10.20pm six nights a week to start work at 11pm, leaving husband Lotovale at home to look after 9-year-old son George.

After finishing work at 7am she drives home, picks up Lotovale and drops him at the engineering company where he works as a welder. For her six nights, Lafaele earns $427 in the hand and even with her husband's wages has difficulty making ends meet - and has no chance of getting the loan they want to move out of their Housing Corporation home.

"You look at the lowest wages, we're working on that," she said. "This money we're getting, it's nothing."

A year ago the LHMU in Australia and the SFWU launched the "Clean Start: fair deal for cleaners" campaign urging better pay and conditions, work and skills recognition, and a career path in the industry.

In Australia, major cleaning companies responded, increasing wages and signing up to a "responsible contractor" policy that embraces unions. Across the Tasman, the unions say, similar approaches have run against a brick wall. "They say that while cleaning companies contracted by AMP and the Commonwealth Bank in Australia have agreed to work co-operatively with the LHMU, the same companies cleaning AMP's building in New Zealand "are prepared to fight the union to the death".

Denmark's ISS is working with the LMHU in Australia and is regarded in Europe as a good employer, in 2003 signing a global framework agreement with unions promising co-operative relationships wherever they operate. In New Zealand, the SFWU says, ISS is leading the charge to sideline the union.

Britain's OCS, which has signed a "fair share" deal with UK unions and is working with the LHMU in Australia, has yet to take a similar stance in New Zealand.

"It's pretty amazing, really," the SFWU's Mr Ryall said. "When we look at the companies that operate in Australia and New Zealand, they take a completely different approach in Australia than they do here.

"At the moment these companies in New Zealand are paying 5c an hour above the minimum wage: $10.30 an hour. The rates in Australia, in a less regulated environment, are between A$17 and A$18 an hour.

"All those major companies in Australia signed off to what we call a responsible contractor policy, which recognised the union as a major player in the sector and that it has a very important role, that they represent workers collectively and that they're part of a strategic alliance with the contractors and property owners to improve the lives of the cleaners."

In New Zealand the SFWU says efforts to reach the same agreement have fallen flat. Mr Ryall said the union had spoken to the industry body, Building Services Contractors of NZ, and with individual companies, without success.

BSC executive director Marja Verkerk said the industry had traditionally paid well above the minimum wage, but that it had been eroded in the two years since the last multi-employer collective award was negotiated by rises in the minimum wage.

The industry was now looking at ways to close that gap.

Ms Verkerk also said the union position was different in the two countries. In Australia unions represented about 30 to 40 per cent of cleaners, but in New Zealand, while the SFWU remained a major stakeholder, average union representation in contracting companies was about 12 per cent, falling in some cases to as low as 3 per cent.

Ms Verkerk said the industry had not rejected a responsible contractor agreement with a "one-liner" as the union claimed, but had considered after looking at the proposal that most of the points were already covered by the collective agreement, the industry's code of practice, or by legislation - which was not the case in Australia.

The industry considered that signing a responsible contractor policy now would imply - incorrectly - that it accepted it had not previously been acting responsibly.

Ms Verkerk also said the New Zealand industry had for more than 10 years operated an extensive training scheme recognised by the Qualifications Training Authority to improve workers' skills, rising to supervisor level and with plans to add office administration to the scheme. About 800 people were at present training under the scheme.

But in Sydney, LHMU Clean Start regional director Mr Crosby has already been pushing his New Zealand counterpart's case to the contractors' Australian head offices, and is preparing to fly to London and Copenhagen on April 30 to take the Kiwis' complaints to the global headquarters of ISS and OCS.

Mr Crosby sees self-interest as well as altruism in helping his transtasman counterparts: "We have this view that increasingly Australia and New Zealand, because of the closer economic relations agreement, are one market. If you want to get employers treating workers properly in Australia you've got to make sure they're treating workers properly in New Zealand."

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