Cleaners urged to join fight against low wages

People working as cleaners in Finland are being urged to join trade unions and fight for their rights. Union density among cleaners is exceptionally low, just 30%, compared with a national average of 70%. Now a politically independent international group called Justice for Cleaners is campaigning to increase union membership in Finland in a sector that is traditionally poorly paid, and where the work is often both emotionally and physically demanding.

Background

A cross-union network, the Critical Trade Network (KRAY), has been highly critical of traditional Finnish trade unions for being too ‘consensus-orientated’ and lacking real interest in tackling the problems of low pay.

The network has pointed out that low income sectors in Finland, and across Europe, often suffer from low appreciation in society. It is often said – and also observed – that employees on the lowest wages can be mentally too tired to stand up to defend their own interests, but are more or less content with their fate.

Cleaners are one example of a group in Finland which is traditionally poorly paid, while the work can be emotionally and physically demanding. Now Justice for Cleaners, a politically independent international movement, is encouraging Finnish cleaners to join trade unions and fight for their rights.

Growing sector

The number of companies operating in the cleaning sector in Finland has increased steadily in recent years. There are many reasons for growth in the cleaning sector, but the most important of all is the rise in public sector outsourcing.

Another reason for the increased number of small-sized cleaning companies is a rise in private household cleaning. This is due to the system of households’ tax relief for domestic help. Nowadays, the cleaning sector has the highest number of employees in the real estate service industries.

Low union density among cleaners

Union density among cleaners is exceptionally low. While the average union density among Finnish employees is higher than 70%, the union density among cleaners is estimated to be about 30%.

One obvious reason for low union density is the fact that the sector has typically been so-called ‘passage work’, with many part-time and temporary contracts and temporary agency work. A great number of students work periodically as cleaners to help fund their studies.

Another large group in the sector are those with a foreign background. There are no exact figures available but it is estimated that in the Helsinki area, for instance, more than 50 % of cleaning workers are immigrants.

Violation of the laws regulating subcontracting services have recently clearly been higher in the cleaning sector than others. The Service Union United (PAM) has criticised the industrial cleaning industry’s system of sub-contracting which can be so unclear and complicated that an employee does not know who his or her paymaster really is.

Improving the lot of cleaners

The origins of Justice for Cleaners can be traced back to 1980s America, and the US faction is now part of Service Employees International Employees (SEIU), an alliance of professional services trade unions.

The Finnish Justice for Cleaners organisation was established in September 2007. The group wants to increase awareness of the issues facing cleaners. It is urging them to fight for their rights and for better salaries. It also wants a better general social appreciation of their important work.

The organisation has also set concrete goals for the improvement of cleaners’ work and pay. In 2007, Justice for Cleaners joined with PAM in a call to raise the minimum hourly wage to €10.

The organisation believes that if the union density of cleaners grows, an increase in public respect and pay will follow. It also believes that if pay improves and cleaners achieve a higher social standing, workers in the sector will be more likely to join trade unions in the future.

Criticism of trade union movement

Cleaners are just one example of the increasing number of low-paid workers.

In Finland, there is no universal minimum wage. The collective agreement in most employment branches determines the pay and other minimum employment terms. According to statistics from Eurostat (242 KB PDF), Finland is currently among the countries with the lowest share of low-paid workers. Many low paid workers are vital to the smooth functioning and essential operations of Finnish society – these include cleaners, as well as those in the service and healthcare sectors.

The question of how the traditional trade union movement is able to protect the interests of employees in the modern job market is now being raised.

Despite its association with PAM, the Finnish Justice for Cleaners group has been among those criticising trade unions. It says many are too passive and incapable of making a difference.

Finland’s Critical Trade Network (KRAY) has argued that the country’s trade unions are too established within the political status quo. KRAY is a cross-union, cross-political network of trade union activists with a critical view of social and political issues and issues around working life.

KRAY has called for unions to do more to improve the livelihoods of the unemployed. Some KRAY activists have argued that the current Finnish trade union movement has, in effect, abandoned people who do not have conventional full-time and permanent contracts. They argue that trade unionists everywhere must stand together with the unemployed, those doing precarious work and exploited migrants.

KRAY’s goals are to restore the status of the trade union movement as a social reform movement, and promote unionisation. The network has also pledged to take ‘solidarity action by improving the position of low-wage occupations in Finnish society’.

Commentary

Grassroots movements like Justice for Cleaners and KRAY have reignited discussion about the role, policy and goals of the Finnish trade union movement. A central goal for KRAY is to bring the trade union movement closer to ordinary union members.

The current euro crisis has brought social partners back to the centralised negotiating table. Finland hasn’t seen radical trade unions demonstrations against austerity like those held across many European countries.

KRAY has criticised the official trade union movement for its commitment to social dialogue with the employers. It says unions have, in fact, accepted ‘neoliberal politics with outsourcing and drastic restructurings’.

One notable exception was a demonstration that took place on Independence Day, 6 December 2013. A so-called ‘fringe celebration’ was held which ended in violent protest and riot. The organisers of the event said the protest was directed against the ‘official consensus policy’ that has ignored the precarious, low-wage workers and the unemployed.

Pertti Jokivuori, University of Jyväskylä

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