Lately I have been at home during the day more than I used to when I was running a global business. So I had the good fortune to actually meet the woman who cleans our house once a week. Prior to this, I had a vague understanding that we ‘had a cleaner’, but I took that service for granted, and certainly gave the person who cleaned up our mess little thought.
Well, I had a great long chat with ‘Rosie’ (lets call her that for now) and of course she is a recent migrant, from Asia, but she is fluent in English, very bright, cheerful, and an engaging person, with a willing smile and a lovely sense of humour.
I asked her about her original home and how she found living in Australia. We inevitably got to talking about her work history, because I was truly interested in her, but also because I am a classified, fully paid-up recruiting-tragic, and I can’t help myself.
Rosie does not only clean houses of well-heeled North Shore professionals. No, to make a living for herself, her husband and her impoverished family back home, she works in a Sydney hotel, near Darling Harbour, where she cleans the rooms, six days a week.
Now, I have always considered Australia a highly evolved industrial democracy, with many laws protecting people from exploitation, but as I dug deeper, the more shocked I became. Or maybe in my smug, comfortable world, I am just ignorant of the realities of working life for many in this country. And a working life it is.
Rosie’s working status at the hotel is a 'permanent casual', as she described it to me. I think that means ‘not temp’, but without the security or regular hours of a permanent job. On a typical day she cleans 15 or 16 rooms. However, she gets no notice of how long each shift might be, and there are no guarantees of how much work she will get. She only finds out what’s in store when she arrives - it depends on the occupancy. There is no compensation if she only has three hours work on a particular day.
Incredibly, she is not paid a set wage, or by the hour. She is paid by the 'rooms serviced'. So if a pedantic, obsessively neat accountant from Hobart has just vacated, she might knock the room over in 25 minutes. But if Johnny Rotten, the surviving Sex Pistols, and a gaggle of groupies, have just rolled out, it might take an hour or 90 minutes.
And some of what she cleans up does not bare thinking about.
But, be it 25 minutes or 90, Rosie gets paid per room.
And that pay?
$8.50 per room cleaned.
So Rosie thinks nothing of leaving her far-western Sydney home at 5 am, to get to Darling Harbour to clean how many rooms she does not know, for $8.50 a room, and then to catch a bus, mid-afternoon, to northern Sydney, where she cleans up after the Savage family, the father of which she only met the first time in 2 years, last week.
And so it was I found myself snapping at my son recently, when he accepted his meal from a waitress without thanking or acknowledging her, and how it was he got a severe dressing down on manners and respect for anyone who does anything for him.
And it's a lesson for me too, and maybe for you as well, as you close the door on a wrecked hotel room that cost $400 a night, that someone will clean up our mess, for about the cost of a cup of coffee, or two.
I read this week that Margaret Thatcher had a vicious turn of phrase for her senior ministers, and could be brutal with top people who underperformed, but was increasingly kind to people, the more junior their position. I respect her for that at least.
Work is honorable. Any work. Any job. Every person must be respected for what they do, regardless how menial it may be. No matter what the pay, just the same, they make a contribution to the greater good.
Society needs every one of its workers to function, and those of us protected from the harsh realities of the lower rungs of the employment ecosystem need to respect every worker, and all work, as much as we do those 'rock stars' in business and elsewhere, who we idolise for earning millions of dollars a year.
It’s not political. It's human.