Nickel and dimed in Canada: why caring about the people who clean your home is better for everyone.

Nickle and Dimed in Canada
by Matti Sevink

In the spring of 2006, the Globe and Mail’s Jan Wong did a series of articles titled “Dirty Secrets” about the domestic cleaning market in Toronto. In it, she paints an abysmal picture of life as a domestic cleaner where (mostly) women work for what is often below minimum wage. Cleaning companies circumvent the minimum wage laws by paying their workers on commission. When paid on commission, cleaners get so much per house, but the quotes are often so low that the workers have to speed through the work and rely on heavy chemicals for an assist in lifting the dirt quickly. There’s just no time for elbow grease and so many of these companies can’t and won’t support the use of environmental cleaners: so much for health and safety. A two-person team will often clean five or six houses a day. They have to in order to make enough money to survive. They must be exhausted!

Because of the speed required, some of the cleaning practices are appalling. In Nickel and Dimed and Not Getting By in America, Barbara Ehrenreich goes undercover as a cleaner in the domestic cleaning market. She describes the training methods of one of the larger companies;

“When you enter a house, you spray a white rag with Windex and place it in the left pocket of your green apron. Another rag, sprayed with disinfectant, goes into the middle pocket, and a yellow rag bearing wood polish in the right-hand pocket. A dry rag, for buffing surfaces, occupies the right-hand pocket of your slacks. Shiny surfaces get Windexed, wood gets wood polish and everything else is wiped dust-free with disinfectant.”

Ehrenreich goes on to say that when she asked Cheryl Mendelson, author of Home Comforts about the effectiveness of these methods, Mendelson was incredulous. “A rag moistened with disinfectant will not get a countertop clean. Disinfectants are inactivated by contact with organic matter-ie., dirt. You need soap and water.”

The minimum wage will keep workers below the poverty line. This is where most cleaning agencies start their workers. At Fair Trade Cleaning we start our workers at a significantly higher rate than minimum wage. We want our clients to know that if they have a single mother cleaning their house for them, her kids aren’t going hungry and neither is she.

When we hire new cleaners at Fair Trade Cleaning, we tell them, “Clean like your mother taught you and don’t be afraid to use water.” Then we audition them. Then, wherever necessary, they’re given tips and instruction. They are trained in health and safety and given gloves, particle masks (in case of an encounter with mouse dirt or mold) and a pair of kneepads. We usually send a new cleaner out with an old hand the first few times until they’ve got an idea of what’s expected, and we also have a thorough checklist to use as a guideline. We use only environmentally-safe cleaning products. We care about our people. We care about you.