Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Cleaners’ campaign yields new coalitions

[Contribution by Marijke Bijl] - In the margin of the cleaners’ campaign, we gained promising experiences in the Hague. The union organisers focused on the workers, the cleaners themselves. We wanted to see if we would find solidarity, or be able to organise solidarity, by going to people’s home bases -their places of continuity- in the neighbourhoods, associations and churches.
Everywhere there was recognition, stories were told; in a broader sense as well: about other professions, unemployment, workloads. And often people said they would like to do something.
This enabled us to form delegations of people with different backgrounds who were willing to accompany the cleaners to talk to the clients of cleaning companies.
It had not been determined beforehand what people would say. It was good to see how the stories complemented each other. The cleaner says: we have to do more work per hour, our working hours become ever more fragmented, the wages are inadequate. The Nigerian volunteer continues: do you know how humiliating it is to be seen only as a tool that can be taken out of the tool box and be put back at will. The Moroccan community worker: we meet people who are busy all day running from one job to the other, without having earned a minimum income by the end of the month, while hardly having time for their families. The clergyman adds: if you contract the cheapest cleaning company, then this wil have an impact, an inhumane impact.
These visits resulted in a follow-up in the Hague. General practitioners (GPs) started creating ‘GPs support cleaners’. They were followed by ‘Teachers support cleaners’ and ‘Clergymen support cleaners’. Secretaries wanted to join. The first poet who was asked immediately said that he wanted to mobilise more poets into ‘Poets support cleaners’.
The collective agreement was reached earlier than expected, but the experiences gained were encouraging.
A few days after the cleaning agreement, we organised a meeting with all the people we had met during the campaign. It became very clear how developments in all sectors point in the same direction: contracting out; short-term contracts; more work in fewer hours; fragmented lives and increasing income insecurity.
There was a discussion about what should be understood by the term ‘living wage’. Responses went beyond minimum wages: uninterrupted working hours; recognition. Interestingly, issues were raised as well that are mainly relevant to undocumented domestic workers, including housing, security and self-defence.
Certainly, there will be debates. On the details; on money issues. This is not going to happen overnight. But still. It offers a perspective to new connections, in the city, through chains of work and life. And it puts fresh heart into anyone involved.
Marijke Bijl works at the Illegal Workers’ Support Committee (OKIA) and was involved in the cleaners’ campaign in the Hague. A longer version of the above article was published in Dutch on the Solidariteit website.

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