The Sunday Magazine

Why the 'invisible workers' cleaning up COVID-19 need better labour protection

Janitorial work is vital for the public's protection, and it's full of risk these days. And yet, janitorial workers have for years been among the lowest-paid in Canada. Deena Ladd is the executive director of the Workers' Action Centre, an organization in Toronto that works with people in low-wage and unstable employment.
Janitorial workers in Canada have for years been among the lowest-paid in the country, and classified as so-called ‘low-skilled’ labour. (Dmitry Kalinovsky/Shutterstock)
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The message has been loud and clear: everyone needs to do their part to fight the spread of COVID-19, and that means not leaving our homes unless absolutely necessary.

Deena Ladd is the executive director of the Workers' Action Centre. (Workers' Action Centre)

But for tens of thousands of people who work as cleaners across this country, this pandemic has meant having to keep showing up for work — for more demanding shifts, and under potentially hazardous working conditions. You can't telecommute if you're a cleaner or janitor.

In Canada, as elsewhere in the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed just how essential their work is for public health and safety. And yet, janitorial workers in Canada have for years been among the lowest-paid in the country, and classified as so-called 'low-skilled' labour. Essential, but not commanding a lot of respect.

Deena Ladd is the executive director of the Workers' Action Centre, an organization in Toronto that works with people in low-wage and unstable employment. 

She spoke to The Sunday Edition's Michael Enright about the working conditions of cleaners in Canada. Here are some excerpts from that conversation, edited for clarity and condensed.


What janitorial work looks like in Canada today

Many of the cleaners that I work with clean your grocery stores, malls, office buildings, medical centres. But in most cases, they're not hired directly by those companies. That company probably subcontracts out to a middle broker, and they, in turn, hire cleaners. 

So those cleaners, for the most part, are not even seen as workers. They're seen as independent contractors. So they're not even getting the benefits of labour protection. They're lucky if they get minimum wage. 

Even before this pandemic hit the country, they were definitely not given proper health and safety equipment. They're not told what kind of chemicals they're using. And they really are very vulnerable because they're not able to speak out against the issues that they're facing because they'll just get fired. 

[The workforce] is a lot of new Canadians, a lot of immigrants, a lot of undocumented workers. 

Some workers, like some of the city municipal workers who are cleaners, are in a union. But for the most part, when you're looking at private businesses and malls and grocery stores, most of those cleaners in my experience have not been in unions and don't have the ability to unionize without losing their jobs … When a union tries to organize a subcontractor, the property management company just gets rid of the subcontractor and then they hire a new subcontractor.

Many of our governments have refused to pay attention to the deterioration of working conditions. We have been raising the alarm bells for decades now. At least for the last 20 years, we've been talking about the fact that lots of people in our labour market are increasingly without protection. 

On how COVID-19 has changed the work of cleaners

If anything, this pandemic has shown you can't say that cleaners are essential workers without providing them with essential protection. And one of those essential protections and labour standards is paid sick days. People are going to work, they don't have the proper health and safety equipment, they have no masks, and they're cleaning buildings. And they could potentially get sick, but they don't have paid sick days.

Since COVID-19 hit, a lot of the labour leases and subcontractors are asking the workers to use more heavy duty chemicals in their cleaning but they're not, for instance, explaining to the workers what those chemicals are, or how to protect themselves. They're not giving them information. And workers are afraid of asking and afraid of not using those chemicals because they can't afford to lose their jobs right now.

What we're also finding right now, especially since this crisis hit, is that a lot of cleaners have had their work intensified. So they're being asked to do more cleaning duties, they've got added layers of work and they're not getting any extra pay for that. 

We're saying to people, document your hours, make sure that you are noting how many hours you're not getting paid so we can try and do something about it afterwards. But, as you can imagine, with millions of people across this country losing their jobs, workers are very afraid. 

Technically, on paper, many workers have the right to refuse work, but in reality that's pretty much not the case. For many workers who don't have a union, they know that when they speak up about something that's happening they are risking their jobs. 

This pandemic is really exposing the crucial role that cleaners are playing, and yet they are never really considered that. They are the invisible workers. They come in at night to clean our buildings and to clean the grocery stores. They're not necessarily seen, and people haven't really cared about those working conditions before.

You can't say that cleaners are essential workers without providing them with essential protection.- Deena Ladd

On whether the new federal emergency benefits can help

If you voluntarily quit your job because you're afraid of getting sick, you won't get access to that benefit. I've had workers contact our centre basically afraid, because they don't want to go on public transportation that is overcrowded to get to their job. Or they are working in long-term care facilities or nursing homes where the risk of infection is higher. Yet their employers have told them that if you don't come to work, we will fire you or it will be seen as you quitting your job — which then has huge implications for workers trying to get access to income support.

And, if they don't have a valid social insurance number they will not be eligible for the emergency response benefit. One of the things that we've been trying to expose to the government is that if we really want to flatten the curve, having a valid social insurance number should not be a barrier. It's critical that all of these workers who are in these essential services have the ability to stay home if they get sick — because at the end of the day, if you have to put food on the table or take care of your children, and you don't have a valid social insurance number and you can't get these income security benefits, then you're going to have to go to work sick.

We have hundreds and thousands of undocumented workers in this country, especially with the policies that are happening in the U.S. right now that have forced people out of the U.S. and into Canada. We need to make sure that we're looking after them as well.

On whether this pandemic can shift how we value low-paid essential work

One of the interesting things that we've been seeing recently is cleaners and grocery store workers are being called superheroes, which is fantastic. But superheroes need decent working conditions. They need paid sick days and a decent minimum wage. And they need to make sure that they have a voice at work.

They shouldn't just be called superheroes because they're doing what we need. They need us to stand up for them as well.

Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.

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