Modern Slavery Risks in the Cleaning Industry

A Deep Dive into Worker Exploitation

The cleaning and security industries has been recognised as a high-risk sector for worker exploitation and modern slavery in Australia. According to the Department of Home Affairs, common malpractices in the industry include wage withholding, immigration-related coercion, deceptive recruitment, excessive overtime, debt bondage, and the confiscation of personal and travel documents, all fostered by opaque and unaccountable supply chain relationships. The industry’s tender processes often encourage undercutting, leading to contracts awarded at prices that do not support the payment of minimum wages or safe working conditions.

The plight of cleaners

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the essential role of cleaners who ensure the hygiene and safety of public spaces such as offices, schools, and hospitals. Despite their critical role, cleaners face significant vulnerabilities. Approximately 85% of the cleaning workforce in urban centres are international students or temporary visa workers who report threats against their immigration status and other exploitative practices.
High levels of job insecurity characterise the industry, with most cleaners engaged on a casual or part-time basis, significantly higher than the national average across all industries. For many, particularly those with limited English proficiency, the sector provides a crucial entry point to the workforce, albeit one fraught with challenges.

Systemic non-compliance and exploitation

The cleaning industry in Australia is notorious for having some of the highest rates of wage theft. The Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) and various academic studies have consistently found extensive non-compliance with labour laws. A staggering 90% of audited sites were found to have underpaid cleaners, illustrating the pervasive nature of this issue.

Such exploitation is exacerbated by complex subcontracting arrangements and aggressive price competition, which place immense pressure on the workforce. These workers often receive inadequate training and lack the necessary equipment to perform their duties safely, leading to a high incidence of workplace injuries. Research by Safe Work Australia suggests that cleaning is more hazardous than construction and mining, with a significant prevalence of musculoskeletal disorders among workers.

The broader impact of non-compliance

The consequences of non-compliance in the cleaning and security services industries extend beyond the immediate stakeholders, affecting investors, property owners, managers, and government bodies. The sector’s complex supply chains create a ‘legal distance’ between the procurers of services and the workers, allowing exploitation to flourish unchecked.

Driving change through awareness and enforcement

Addressing these issues requires a multifaceted approach. Key drivers of non-compliance include opaque contracting practices that result in underpriced contracts, low barriers to entry for service providers, and the vulnerable status of a largely migrant workforce. Tackling these challenges will involve enhancing transparency in contracting, improving labour law enforcement, and providing better support and protections for workers.

Efforts to reform these industries must focus on breaking the cycle of exploitation and ensuring that cleaners are recognised, respected, and fairly compensated for their indispensable work. This will improve conditions for workers and enhance the integrity and sustainability of the cleaning industry as a whole.

Our role as a strata agency

As a procurer of cleaning and security services on behalf of owners corporations, Strata Plus acknowledges its critical role in addressing modern slavery within our supply chain. By adopting a volunteer modern slavery statement, we have committed to rigorous standards and proactive measures to ensure ethical practices are deeply ingrained in our operations and interactions with suppliers.

Our Modern Slavery Policy outlines our commitments to identify, prevent, and mitigate any risks of modern slavery and human trafficking in our operations and extended supply chain. This statement is a cornerstone of our procurement process, ensuring that all our suppliers and contractors understand our values and adhere to the same ethical standards.

We have also provided training programs for all our staff, particularly those involved in procurement and supply chain management. This training helps to ensure that our employees can recognise the signs of modern slavery and understand the appropriate actions to take if they suspect it is occurring within our supply chain.

Watch the video from the Cleaning Accountability Framework on why cleaning is considered high risk for Modern Slavery.



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