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The Fight for Living Wage for AUT Cleaners

By Rebecca Zhong

Recently I was talking to a friend of mine whose mother works as a cleaner at one of Auckland’s largest commercial firms. Despite attaining a masters degree in Taiwan, she’s been scrubbing toilets in Auckland CBD for the last 15 years. Like many immigrants, her knowledge and identity was non-transferable when she moved to New Zealand. But in 2020, scrubbing toilets makes you someone who is deemed ‘essential.’ Essential in that the general public understands that without your labour, businesses and life would come to a freezing halt. But despite this being general knowledge, cleaners still continue to be severely undervalued and underpaid.

In 2017, the Government made a Living Wage promise to cleaners and security guards who work in police stations, courts, Work and Income service centres and other government buildings where New Zealanders work and visit. During COVID-19, Jacinda Ardern received global praise for her empathy and gratitude towards essential workers. Cleaners were amongst the many that Jacinda offered her personal thanks to. Jacinda recognised that these invaluable workers were instrumental towards keeping New Zealand safe and secure. But at the end of the day, a thanks has very little value unless it is backed up with action and change. Cleaners continue to be the lowest paid individuals in the core public sector. And their pay simply does not reflect their hard work. As of now, the Government has not fulfilled their promise in ensuring cleaners receive living wage.

In 2019, union members secured the living wage for AUT staff. This increase was a direct response to successful strike actions. And while this is a great win for AUT staff, it doesn’t mean everyone working at AUT is protected. Because AUT does not directly employ their cleaners, a living wage salary is not agreed upon or secured for them like other staff members. AUT instead works with a cleaning company to carry out all its cleaning services. When asked about how much these cleaners are paid, AUT responded with “cleaning work carried out for AUT is compensated at an appropriate level that is above the minimum wage. We aren’t able to comment on their overall compensation.”

The living wage emerged as a direct response to growing poverty and inequality that continues to hold back so many Kiwi workers, their families and the economy. The living wage is a simple concept that is powerful by nature. As of 2020, the Living Wage Movement has recognised that $22.10 is the hourly rate a worker needs to receive in order to pay for the necessities of life, while also having enough to participate as an active citizen in the community.

The problem with outsourcing work to a third party is that you effectively move liability and accountability onto another party. While AUT may take pride in the fact that they do pay the living wage to their staff, they lack transparency in communicating who is actually accounted for in the term “staff.” These workers who are outsourced are often the most vulnerable, and are consequently susceptible to mistreatment and silencing. This is not the first time AUT has used outsourcing to shift liability.

This is not the first time AUT has used outsourcing to shift liability. During the lockdown period, we witnessed notable mistreatment towards student accommodation residents and RA.

During the lockdown period, we witnessed notable mistreatment towards student accommodation residents and RAs. When the media scrutinised the evident inaction of AUT, the university simply shrugged their shoulders and said it was the duty of Campus Living Villages to tend to this, as the job was outsourced to them. During this time, RAs were being paid a rate of $19 per hour, well below the recommended living wage of $22.10. As of a few weeks ago RAs have moved to a solely AUT contract where they are now compensated at a rate above the recommended living wage.

This really puts into question how much more AUT can do to protect the livelihood of their cleaners. We understand that this issue is a lot more multifaceted than simply paying cleaners more. Because these cleaners are contracted to work for AUT via their company, it is plausible to assume that they may also be offering their services to a number of different institutions and companies, not simply AUT. But as an institution that values equity, should AUT not work harder to ensure that the companies they outsource to share similar values? How can we ensure that across the board, not only at AUT, cleaners are compensated fairly, with rates that reflect their essential nature? What action needs to be done on our end to help echo the need for fair treatment towards cleaners? With saying this we also need to keep AUT to account. A quick google search will tell you that AUT has not published any readily accessible formal statement on their stance towards living wage. And as individuals, and a collective entity of students, we need to also put pressure on our government to fulfill their 2017 promise of paying cleaners Living Wage.


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