In the cleaning sector, the battle for decent work is waged with great care and courage. In the face of racism, exploitation and intimidation at work, many workers are afraid to be seen learning about their rights or seeking help. But with the support of education programs at the Workers’ Action Centre, cleaners are taking leadership and spreading knowledge and confidence within their sector.
In thanks for helping to make our Workers’ Bowl fundraiser a success, this edition of Stories from the Frontlines shares how Veronica, a Workers’ Action Centre member, is breaking through the fear and misinformation among cleaners in the Spanish-speaking community.
Workers’ Action Centre: Why is it especially important that cleaners get the chance to learn about their rights at work?
Veronica: I have been working as a cleaner for 10 years. There are different types of cleaning jobs: construction, buildings, malls and stores, houses, and more. For cleaners, it’s an everyday thing to face racism, and to be taken advantage of because of your status, the language you speak and your lack of access to other types of jobs. Employers know when workers are migrants and will say that they are illegal and don’t have rights. The boss will say, “I’m doing you a favour. Say thank you, don’t ask for your rights.”
Many workers in my community are newcomers, and some are undocumented. Unfortunately, most people assume that working without a work permit means they don’t have rights on the job. Undocumented workers are protected under Ontario’s Employment Standards Act, and not knowing that fact can make cleaners accept less than the minimum wage and miss out on public holiday pay, overtime pay and time off. This makes life extremely stressful and leaves no possibility to lift yourself out of a life of poverty.
It is incredibly empowering to let cleaners know that they do have rights at work.
What strategies did you use to reach out to cleaners and why do you think they were successful?
Veronica: I began by having one-on-one conversations with about 30 people I knew in the sector. These are people who are so vulnerable to oppression at work, so it’s important to take the time to build relationships and keep things confidential. Once they were sure that the Workers’ Action Centre is a safe space, they felt free to come together to support each other and build their own leadership skills.
By talking with them, I learned the four topics that cleaners need to know about the most: getting paid in cash, being misclassified as an independent contractor, health and safety, harassment and bullying. I worked with other organizers and with IAVGO* to deliver this crucial information in Spanish.
The workshops we held for cleaners were powerful. Now they know they have rights and are empowered to ask for them. Workers even shared the information with friends who are also cleaners, but long work hours or fear of their bosses finding out prevented them from joining us. Many of those friends face the same problems from the same employer or temporary agency, so the workers’ rights information speaks directly to their situation, too.
What changes have you seen in workers after they attend a workshop?
Veronica: Workers use what they’ve learned! When employers cut cleaners’ hours of work, but still expect the same amount of work to be done, workers have told their boss that they won’t do it, that it’s not possible. They are empowered to negotiate with the employer. They know they have the right to say no.
I’m proud of the workers who have refused unsafe work. An employer wanted them to clean the lights up in the stairwell without any safety equipment, only the stairs. Because they knew their rights, they were confident enough to say, “It isn’t safe, we don’t have to do it. Please don’t ask.”
They have the confidence to ask for public holiday pay, overtime pay, vacation pay, and time off. A group of cleaners is taking leadership by making plans together to make workers’ rights information more accessible to workers in the Latin American community and in our sector. When we organize, we don’t feel alone. We feel supported.
We’re excited to see how Veronica is helping transform her community by sharing information about our rights at work. Your donations allow our leadership programs to strengthen a worker’s leadership skills, which ends up making the whole community stronger. If you haven’t yet had a chance, please support us at the Workers’ Action Centre, share our workers’ rights factsheets with your own community, and inspire a friend with this story!
*Industrial Accident Victims’ Group of Ontario