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Low wages = poor working conditions

STREET SWEEEPERS: Street cleaners at work in the city of Plovdiv in Bulgaria. 
STREET SWEEEPERS: Street cleaners at work in the city of Plovdiv in Bulgaria. Photo: SINTEF
Price pressure leads to “cowboy” contracts and poor working conditions in service jobs in the construction and cleaning industries.

Norway has added 300 000 new jobs in the past decade. Many are in the cleaning industry and the building and construction sector, and are held by immigrants.

“We would not have been able to fill these positions ourselves,” says SINTEF scientist Hans Torvatn, “but this also means that contracts and working conditions are complex, and it is often price that counts, rather than health, safety and environmental aspects.”

Uncharted waters

In the EU project “Work and Life Quality in New and Growing Jobs” (known by its acronym walqing), researchers from Trondheim and their colleagues from ten other countries are in the process of describing the situation and providing advice.

“All countries have found that after a written contract has been signed with company A, it turns to company B as well as to a range of sub-contractors – whose working conditions are very different from the ones you started with. A local authority, for example, can have great difficulty in gaining access to and coping with such situations,” says Torvatn.

According to the researchers, this is because these market segments are characterized by short-term and informal contracts. Cleaning requires no formal qualifications. For example, two cleaning companies are established every day in Norway – while just as many go bankrupt. Many of the companies are also problematic. They find many ways to avoid paying taxes, and take little notice of labour laws.

“People often believe that they have hired a cleaning company, but find that they have actually hired an intermediary firm, known as a ‘facility service company’. These kinds of businesses can be serious, and may provide both cleaning and janitorial services, for example. But just as often they are merely a camouflage for sub-contracts with ‘cowboy’ companies that constantly break the law and ignore regulations,” says Torvatn.

Describe and give advice

The researchers point to the enormous price pressure on the market and explain that in many cases, price is often the only focus for public-sector procurements.

“Companies that provide services either have to engage in illegal practices or drive their employees hard, so we need to address the tenders side and the people who write the contracts,” says Torvatn.

He believes, paradoxically enough, that clashes that occur in this sector are no longer between employers and employees.

“The employer is still responsible, but now customers seem to be in control. They set the agenda and raise the pressure on prices by demanding services that are as cheap as possible. This inevitably raises the demands of some tasks, and we end up with headlines in which overworked hotel maids cry ‘Enough is enough!’”

Researchers are also finding the same thing on the private market. Every country in Europe is struggling with undeclared wages, and ‹black› payments have eliminated legitimate ‘white’ businesses that have been pressed to lower their prices and are forced to work harder.

“‘Black’ work goes smoothly for you and ‘Juanita’ as long as she does the job and you pay her. But if she stops coming to work, steals something, falls ill, or starts to argue about her wages, there will be problems. A major disadvantage for her is that she does not come under the National Insurance Scheme and thus has no rights,” says Torvatn.

Norway ahead of most

However, the picture is not completely dark, and Norway stands out as an good example for Europe where the cleaning industry is concerned. While legitimate cleaning companies in Vienna are not permitted to let their employees clean during the day, and professors at Spanish universities force cleaning staff to come so early that there are no buses to their workplaces, Norway has reduced the amount of evening and night work over the past twenty to thirty years.

Day work is normal in the registered cleaning industry in Norway. Cleaning has become professionalized through new technology, the introduction of standards and competence development, all of which take place in on-going cooperation between unions and employers. Other European countries may be able to learn from Norway’s approach.

Action Research

The walqing project is examining this evolving job situation to provide governments, trade unions and organizations with a better understanding of the conditions. it will also help with recommendations for tender requirements regarding a company’s qualifications. This will enable businesses and governments to select companies with good HSE systems, among other things.

The walqing researchers are also visiting companies in the field, and are collaborating closely with industry to see what kinds of measures might be implemented. SINTEF has been conducting this type of action research for many years, and the Norwegian researchers have therefore acted as consultants in several cases across Europe.

In Bulgaria, SINTEF has examined a cleaning business whose Romani employees cleaned city streets and picked up garbage. The researchers brought the cleaning personnel and management together, and were able to get the group to come up with constructive suggestions for minor changes and initiatives. They are also working on specific cases in Belgium, Denmark and Austria. The project will end next year.


Åse Dragland