IT IS SUPPOSED to be test of character. An A+ student sits down to the final exam of his degree, and is surprised to be presented with a piece of paper with a single question: what is the name of the person who cleans this building? Walter W Bettinger II, CEO of the finance giant the Charles Schwab Corporation, told a version of this story to The New York Times last year, describing the test as ‘the only one I ever failed’ and ‘a great reminder of what really matters in life’. I recently tried it out on my eight-year-old, a NSW public school student, and she flunked too. This result is less to do with her moral qualities though, I suspect, than her state of residence. For NSW, it turns out, is one of the harder states for a kid to pass the ‘what’s the cleaner’s name?’ test.
Kath Haddon, a school cleaner in NSW since 1981, remembers when cleaners’ names started to drop from use in her workplace. It was in early 1994, following the Greiner Coalition government’s decision to dissolve the Government Cleaning Service and tender the work to private companies. ‘We went from being employees of the school to being employees of the contractors overnight, and you could physically feel the change,’ she says. She stopped being invited to meetings about school health and safety – that was now the contractors’ job – and face-to-face conversations with the school principal ceased. Instructions were now delivered via a bureaucratic maze of faxes, phone calls, log book entries and area manager site visits. Soon, sticky-taped notes addressed to ‘Cleaner’ began appearing on pieces of equipment. ‘It felt like we had become objects,’ Kath says, ‘just like the vacuum cleaner in the corner.’
Passing the ‘name the cleaner’ test is far easier for kids in Tasmania, where cleaners have remained direct employees of the school. In fact, when I spoke to Tasmanian school cleaner Robert Terry about what his job was like, the theme of name-remembering was one of the first subjects to come up. ‘I can barely step onto school grounds without hearing “Robbo this, Robbo that!”,’ he laughs. He has been cleaning primary schools since the 1970s, and sees remembering names as a crucial dimension to his work. ‘At the start of the year I look at the whole group and pick out the really shy ones, the ones looking like they are left out or the ones who are in trouble,’ he twinkles.
‘I stand at the front and tell them “I’m Robbo, I’m the cleaner here, don’t worry about what the teacher says, do what I say!”’ One kindergarten boy, Julian, spent much of first term hiding under his desk, refusing to speak. Robert made great play of walking past him with his drill, an object of fascination to the boy. He would carry the drill into Julian’s classroom, across his line of sight as he crouched beneath the desk, and put a screw in the wall. The next day he did the same, taking the same screw out of the wall. He repeated the pattern every day until the boy eventually came out from the under the desk and allowed him to roll a ball up and down the corridor with him. A week later, the teacher later got in touch to say that that the boy had at last spoken. His first word? Robbo.
HOW DID WE get to be a nation where cleaners’ names ring out across a playground in some states and not others? This peculiar phenomenon is the outcome of an experiment in neoliberal design that was never planned: the privatisation of school cleaning in some states and territories (Victoria, NSW, ACT, NT, WA and SA) and not in others (Tasmania and Queensland) in the 1990s. Some states have since reversed, wholly or partially, the system (WA, ACT and Victoria), but at twenty years’ distance, the story of Australia’s patchwork system of public and privately contracted school cleaning can tell us much about what happens in the long run when the maintenance of school space is transformed from a public service to a private, for-profit affair.
The Victorian case was the first and most dramatic. In 1992, the Kennett government, acting on the professed urge to liberate Victorians from ‘sterile bureaucracy’, terminated each and every government-employed school cleaner overnight. Every school principal was now expected to act like the director of a standalone business. At the same time, the total school cleaning budget was slashed to less than half. Leaflets about ‘how to get an ABN’ were thrust into cleaners’ hands, from which they learnt that, as contractors, their minimum pay (then around $9 an hour) would fall to precisely zero.
Freedom from red tape it was not. Paperwork proliferated as more than 700 new cleaning companies were established, each one required to bid for individual contracts with 1,750 schools. School principals, most of whom had little business experience, became overwhelmed with a new set of obligations and tended to choose the cheapest tender for each contract. A system that entrenched the cutting of corners, underquoting, exploitation and spooling bureaucracy was born.
Efficient it was not. It is simply not possible to ‘trim fat’ in an industry with high fixed labour costs without cutting into sinew and bone. Schools that once had seven cleaners were suddenly cleaned by two. Principals unblocked toilets during the day while teachers cleaned schoolyards. Parents organised working bees to clean pavements and water troughs, which had been excised from the cleaning contracts. Cleaners bought supplies with their own money, snipped sponges in half to make them go further, and took dirty mops home to clean on their own time. The fact that the 2007 swine flu outbreak wasn’t exacerbated by these conditions was a combination of luck and an injection of funds and new limits on the pool of contractors by the Bracks government. Such interventions did not arrest the basic dynamic set in motion by Kennett, though. In 2017, the workers’ union United Voice found one cleaner working in a Victorian public school receiving just $2.70 an hour.
In NSW, change was slower, with contracts created for just three large cleaning companies rather than hundreds of small owner-operators, and cleaner numbers falling through attrition, rather than slashed budgets. The then-named Federated Miscellaneous Workers Union had held statewide stoppages and mass meetings to oppose the policy that was eventually pushed through on the back of advice received from the US consultants Arthur Andersen, advisers to the famous energy giant Enron. In the view of the experts, the time had simply arrived for a ‘commercial, market-based approach’ to school cleaning. There was no reason school cleaning should be treated as an exception to any other state holding that had been privatised, the report argued. It was, in all relevant respects, the same as the brickworks, the rail authority and the abattoirs.
EFFICIENCY AND PRODUCTIVITY are crisp words, easily quantified and wielded by governments determined to be seen to be active and effective. Trust and belonging, undoubtedly crucial to any good society, are less satisfying and less amenable to political weaponisation. Slow moving and amorphous, few policies are devised in their name. They do not appear in balance sheets. To find their trace, we must look to stories.
One Tasmanian school cleaner, Peta Brinsmead, shared with me the story of Max, a seven-year-old boy who attended the school she had cleaned for twenty-seven years. Max was a mess-maker. He had been deemed ‘out of control’ by his Year 3 teacher, and was on the cusp of expulsion. Peta made a habit of playing hide-and-seek with Max after school when his carer was late to collect him, a situation that was unfortunately not uncommon. One day, he appeared for this ritual an hour later than usual. He held in his hand a small, trembling mouse, which he showed to Peta, explaining to her that he had stolen it from the local pet shop. ‘I think he felt comfortable coming back and telling me, because he knew I wasn’t going to growl at him,’ Peta told me.
Max’s confession was one of hundreds she received over the years, from window-smashers to runaways. ‘We always had good reactions with the naughty kids,’ she explains, ‘they got on with us better than the teachers. I think it is because we weren’t seen as someone with authority.’ Like every career cleaner I have met, Peta had dozens of stories to tell about troubled kids she had known, stories of classrooms overturned, cars beaten with metal pipes, hands punched through walls, windows deliberately smashed. Every tale of mess had a protagonist. A child with a name, who was part of a family, who lived in a house on a street in a community. For someone like Max, Peta was an anchor in a turbulent life, a person who knew him, did not judge him, and was there, year after year, as his teachers, carers and friends turned over.
In NSW, there is a new and disgusting genre of photograph in private circulation among school cleaners. Images of soiled toilets are being posted in a closed Facebook site, captioned with the number of minutes a cleaner is allocated to clean the toilet in accordance with their contract of employment. ‘Shitpics’, you might call them. The first one I saw was of a stall covered wall to wall with toilet paper that had been finely shredded. Time allocated to clean: two minutes. Other images are, to use millennial parlance, ‘hard to unsee’. Toilets deliberately stuffed full of toilet rolls, basketballs and other random objects, bowls overflowing with faeces. The comments below from the cleaners are saturated with resignation (‘I get this every day’; ‘This greets me most afternoons’), anger (‘Disgusting and disrespectful’; ‘Wonder if the parents would be shocked to see what they are doing?’), and frustration at the impossible time limits that are imposed on them for cleaning up such mess (‘Let’s see if the Minister can clean it in the allocated time…’). I wonder at the stories that sit behind each image, the thousands of tiny moments of broken trust and alienation that led to each one. I asked one of the cleaners who had posted a particularly horrible shitpic if he knew the identity of the person responsible. He said he did not, nor did he have any means of finding out. His principal was sympathetic, but the company site manager he worked for simply shrugged their shoulders and reminded him that it was his job to clean it up. Trust was in short supply. Indeed, the cleaner was not even entirely sure that the mess had been left behind by a child.
THE LOSERS FROM privatised school cleaning aren’t very visible.
They are the children, who miss out on the chance to confide in a trusted adult outside the disciplinary teaching hierarchy, someone who is looking out for them when things get difficult, whether that is in school or after hours. Children who do not get the chance to put a name and a face to the person who cleans up their mess, and so to think more carefully about the consequences of their actions.
They are the teachers, who have one less resource to draw upon to de-escalate conflict in the classroom. Who do not have the option of sending a potentially disruptive student out to help the cleaner run errands, or to a groundsperson to do some planting, rather than straight to the principal’s office.
They are also the cleaners themselves, most of whom are forced to work in conditions that do not allow them the time and opportunity to do their jobs as well as they would wish to do them, or to know the students they serve. Who receive wages that give them no possibility of living in, or even remotely close to, the communities they clean. Who must drive for two or more hours in the dark to get to work in the morning, and then sleep in the car between shifts. Who may miss out on the chance to buy a house or have a family of their own.
The winners from the system aren’t easy to spot either. They are the bureaucrats with careers staked to the implementation of a ‘hollowed out’ vision of government. They are the fund managers and shareholders who benefit from adjustments to the balance sheets of multinationals. They are the executives of the multinationals themselves, such as Rafael del Pino y Calvo Sotelo – executive director of the Spanish multinational Ferrovial, which holds the cleaning contract for a portion of NSW schools – whose annual remuneration in 2017 was more than $8 million.
THE QUESTION OF how to employ school cleaners is fundamentally not an economic one. It cannot be answered without addressing the more foundational question of what, in essence, a public school is for. Is it a site for the inculcation of literacy and numeracy skills on the cheapest possible basis? If so, why should marketisation stop with the cleaning staff? Why not tender out the services of teacher aides, administrative staff, teachers themselves? Further cost savings could be made by incentivising students to stay home and teach themselves using Wikipedia, Siri and a handful of apps. Such ‘innovation’ would surely generate enormous ‘savings’ for the public purse.
We wince at such suggestions because at primary school we want our kids to learn more than reading and writing.
I know I am not alone among parents in feeling unsettled by the extent to which a culture of competition and performance ratings has seeped into the classrooms that cleaners clean. My eight-year-old has integrated NAPLAN, the test to enable schools to ‘compete’ with each other on results in a pseudo-market established on the My School website, into her mental map of the world. For a month after the test, she would reel off the names of the children who were ‘at the top’ of her class. I could hear the note of sadness and worry in her voice at the fact that her name was not among them.
Like most children, she is excellent at perceiving social hierarchies. She notices who is and isn’t included, who gets a say and whose voice doesn’t seem to count. It is no small cause of delight to me that, when my children are home, they do not perceive the job of helping to clear away mess to be exclusively mine, and are just as likely to call out ‘Dad!’ as ‘Mum!’ when their orange juice falls over. I claim no exclusive credit for this. Our efforts to practice ‘balanced’ parenting rest on decades of second-wave feminist struggle to de-naturalise the association between women and domestic labour. I am nevertheless pleased. When my daughter makes a mess at school, though, and it is left to be cleaned up by a person in the early hours of the morning the next day, whose name she does not know, who are we letting down?
The cleaners whose stories feature in this article have spent their lives nurturing school communities. They have raised their own families and have been active in the leadership of their union. Each fought for respect for working people and provided advice and guidance to countless organisers and workers.
They have struggled instinctively for an idea of a school as a place where everyone has a name, a ‘good society’ in miniature where our youngest citizens learn how to belong, how to co-operate with others, and how to include and recognise the people around them. We cannot stop children occasionally losing their temper, causing trouble or creating mess. That would be a terrible world. But we can create a school system that means, when those things happen, there is likely to be an adult nearby, apart from the teacher, working outside or down the hall. A person who the child knows and trusts, who remembers their name, knows their story, and is able to take them out to help with a few little jobs, or to do some planting in the garden.