In late February 2019, a seemingly unlikely partnership between Airbnb and a Canberra based, union-backed, refugee run cleaning cooperative, ‘Harmony Cleaning’ was announced. The story was reported widely, sparking interest as a uniquely 21st century phenomenon: an unexpected synthesis of the ethical consumption movement and the ‘gig economy’. This two part article seeks to explore the origins of Harmony Cleaning and the experiences of unionised workers operating a co-operative in the cut-throat industry of contract cleaning.
 The Karen People
Jirayu ‘Jim’ Maneesirawong is a founding director of Harmony Cleaning. He is paid a part-time wage and oversees day-to-day operations. His daughter, Naw Be, works part time managing the Co-op’s books out of the United Voice office. Naw Be and her mother, Pow Shah ‘Paula’ (Jim’s partner) arrived as refugees in Australia in 2008. Jim followed several years later, arriving in 2013. The family had spent the previous nine years in a UNHCR refugee camp in Thailand.
Jim, Naw Be, and Paula are just three of the 350 Karen people estimated to currently live in Canberra. The Karen hail from the Karen/Kayin State in the mountains of Southeast Myanmar, not far from the Thai border. While the majority of Myanmar’s population is Buddhist, 20-30% of Karen are Christian (those in Canberra are most commonly Seventh Day Adventist or Baptist). Since the 1980s the civil conflict between the Karen people and the military government of Myanmar has intensified. The long-running conflict has led to a humanitarian and refugee crisis with well documented instances of massacres, destruction of villages, conscription of child soldiers, and systematic rape.
At the February launch of the Harmony-Airbnb partnership, Jim told an audience of 100 the story of his people:
“We [the Karen] are the minor ethnic group of the people in Burma / Myanmar and are not recognised as legal Burmese citizens. For this reason, we have had to live most of our life feeling afraid of the Burmese military. To hide from the military, we were born and raised in the jungle for the most part of our lives. Life in the jungle was very hard as there [was] no proper food and medicine. We were forced to stay very tough to survive this horrible condition. However, the jungle couldn't protect us from the Burmese military for long as they [would] discover our hiding places.”
“In 1997 the military came in attack our villages, burning down our houses, capturing men and women as slaves,'' he continued. “Everyone was forced to flee in the fear of losing their life. Most of us ended up fleeing across the Thai border. But the Thai government treated us as illegal immigrants. We again had to live with the fear of getting caught, this time by the Thai police. Luckily, UNHCR found us first. They provided us with necessary resources such as shelter, food and medical [care]. They further support us by putting us through a resettlement programs that brought our lives to Australia.”
In 2004, it was estimated that up to 200,000 Karen people had been driven from their homes following forced relocation campaigns by the government beginning in 1996, with around 160,000 refugees then living in refugee camps on the Thai side of the border. A handful of those refugees were resettled in Canberra in the late 2000s. They spoke little to no English and took whatever jobs they could. A great many ended up in cleaning. Like many migrant workers, they were prime targets for exploitation.
As Jim explained,
After spending most of our life in the jungle living with fears we have to deal with a lot of stress from having to make drastic changes of lifestyle as well as having language barriers. These two main components makes most of us feel very lost and anxious to step out of our comfort zones to seek new opportunities like getting into further studies and or finding a more diverse jobs. And for this reason, cleaning work became our first go-to job because by nature, we are a very tough and hard-working people whose are not afraid of physical jobs. Cleaning work is the only jobs that most of us feel confident enough to work in, as it is a simple job.”
 A Conversation at Parliament House
The origin of Harmony Cleaning Co-operative lies in a single conversation between Tha Wah K’sher, a cleaner at Parliament House, and Lyndal Ryan, United Voice ACT Branch Secretary, one afternoon in 2015. Tha Wah is a Karen refugee, community elder, and pastor in the Canberra Seventh Day Adventist Church, while United Voice has long had an active membership of cleaners at Parliament House (a high profile strike had taken place in June of that year).
Lyndal got talking to Tha Wah. She asked if he and his community needed support with any issues. Tha Wah informed her that the Karen community were looking for help in the form of English lessons, whichUnited Voice subsequently organised.
Tha Wah then approached Lyndal to say he was concerned for many people in the community who were working as school cleaners for a company named Phillips Cleaning Services, which was taking advantage of their very limited English and not paying them properly. Tha Wah asked Lyndal if she would come along to the church and meet with the workers. A meeting was quickly arranged, a range of problems were uncovered, and around 30 workers then joined the union.
Jim was one of the many Phillips workers at that meeting. Reflecting on this first union meeting, he said: “the first time when I met Lyndal, I didn’t know [about unions], but when Lyndal explained what she was doing I understood right away that this is for the workers. I had been familiar with the system of unions in Thailand, so I quickly understood, but unions in Australia are the best compared to Thailand. In Thailand you can’t bargain or talk to the boss or try to make them negotiate, even if you work in another organisation. Here we can see that it may just be a cleaning job, but the union takes it seriously and the government has to listen. So that’s super cool and good.”
 Phillips Cleaning
The extent of the exploitation being perpetrated by Phillips Cleaning was staggering and it was happening in 19 of Canberra’s public schools, right under the noses of the Education Directorate. Due to their limited English, many workers had signed contracts they did not understand and were paid by up to four different corporate entities. Many were paid incorrect wages and not paid at all for extra hours (such as hours worked to cover staff absences). The company was also failing to pay sick leave, annual leave, and superannuation entitlements properly. United Voice’s total underpayment claim against Phillips on behalf of 22 workers came to $300,000, with workers owed as much as $24,751 individually.
The Union’s claim was eventually successful. In April 2017, the Federal Court found that the company had failed to pay its workers correct rates on school holidays and failed to pay leave loading. Justice Jayne Jagot described the owner’s evidence as “repeatedly self-serving, internally inconsistent and unbelievable.” Justice Jagot also concluded that the owner “felt entitled to run [Phillips] as he thought fit, irrespective of any legal obligations of [Phillips] to its employees.” But it was a pyrrhic victory. The company’s owner transferred all his assets to his wife on the same day the judgement was handed down and filed for bankruptcy. The workers never saw a cent.
The sad thing was that Lyndal knew the history of Phillips Cleaning. The business was now owned by the two sons of the company’s founder, who was a hard working cleaner and long-time United Voice member. The owner’s father had himself arrived in Canberra in the post-war period as an Italian migrant and refugee. For Lyndal, it was sad to see a new wave of refugees being exploited by the old, but also a familiar story.
As Lyndal explained:
I think they [Phillips] started out with great intentions, I think they wanted to do the right thing, I think they tried and then it failed, and rather than accepting the economics of the cleaning industry was such that they couldn’t be bosses, they continued to be bosses, they continued to buy nice cars and buy nice houses, and they started ripping off workers who had come here as refugees themselves. So it was one night when I was talking to the workers that I’ve gone well, ‘how do we stop that, how do we stop this? And I said ‘well, would you like to run your own cleaning company?’”
Jim also recalled:
All Karen cleaners had had the same experience… stolen wages, not being paid proper entitlements… We were thinking “why do we have to suffer this kind of cheating system?” So when Lyndal said, ‘why don’t you form a company for yourselves?’ it just went ‘bling!’ in our minds. Most of our community has been working in the cleaning industry, some for more than ten years, so we have a lot of experience, so why not come together to work as a co-operative?”
Jim went on: “We said, ‘let’s call our church members and see what they think,’ so we got together and it seemed like everyone agreed.” The Union and the workers then went about researching how a co-operative could be founded (neither had any experience in running one previously). A lawyer volunteered to help the workers draft their own constitution and guide them through the process. Tha Wah suggested the name ‘Harmony Cleaning’ and Jim designed the logo. According to Jim, “we wanted to show the Australian community that we are multicultural, [that] no one should get the feeling they are a stranger or an alien who has come from another place. Everyone should feel this is our home, in happiness and in harmony, and I wanted to make [our] people feel proud of themselves.”
As Jim explained:
after this devastating experience with our ex-employer, we as a community came together and discussed that we wanted to form our own company so that we could all come together and work in harmony. We have the aim to create a company that will treat all their workers fairly and can deliver the best cleaning experience to their customers. We want this company to not just provide income to the rest of the community, but assist in providing work experience for people who need to start their first job so they can later on feel confident enough to go into other areas of work”.
The co-operative commenced operations in July 2016, securing contracts for cleaning various union offices in Canberra and a child care centre.
 A Democratic Model
Harmony’s vision is to “create a competitive and innovative business, based on democratic work practices and ethical employment standards, which supports the Karen community to fully participate in the Australian community”.
Beyond this, the co-operative has four official objectives:
- Support the independence and wellbeing of the Karen community of the Canberra region by providing services to businesses and organisations who have a focus on social procurement;
- Provide managerial autonomy to the Karen community and ensure that they have and can seek means of financial independence;
- Commit to ethical employment standards and democratic work practices that provide for workers’ involvement in the structure and operation of the company;
- Provide a means by which members of the Karen community can develop skills and capabilities (such as language and social engagement) to fully participate as members of the Australian multicultural community.
Currently Harmony has seven directors and more than 30 members. The co-operative remains small, employing approximately nine people including Jim and Naw Be. Of these nine people, four work in permanent full-time roles, while the rest work casually as end of lease, residential, and Airbnb jobs arise. All workers are paid in line with the Cleaning Services Award. As Jim explained, “our main focus is on entitlements of workers.We make sure our workers get proper entitlements and are paid correctly according to law, but that means we can’t bank on the profit.”
Any employee of the co-operative can choose to become a member by paying a nominal membership fee of $50 and agreeing to comply with the co-operative’s constitution and objectives. Each member owns a single voting share and is able to participate in the governance of the organisation.
Jim also believes the co-operative structure reflects his people’s philosophy on work. “We Karen, our nature of work is cooperative. Because when you live in the village, everyone got their own land and farm, but we didn’t hire people to do the labour. We shared the work, shared the labour. If you are going to plant something, you ask me, ‘tomorrow can you come and help me?’, and then the next day if I’m planting something, I’ll ask you to come. In our village, because we live in the jungle, most of the time we do hunting to feed our family. So when we go hunting we share the meat with everyone. And when we share to our neighbours, they cook and give it back. This is our kind of culture.”
While the co-operative only quotes work at 5% above the cost of operations, the co-operative’s constitution further states that any surplus income that is achieved (that is, income over and above wages and operating costs) is to be either reinvested in the operations of the co-operative, invested in projects consistent with the aims of the co-operative ( such as English Language Classes), or distributed fairly amongst the current and past employees on the basis of the hours each employee worked. Any decision is shaped by a recommendation from directors, but ultimately voted on by members.
 Recent developments
Perhaps the most significant recent development for Harmony has been its partnership with Airbnb. In late 2018 United Voice’s national office was approached by Airbnb, which was looking for recommendations on “ethical” cleaning companies it could engage as a default end-of-stay cleaning provider. United Voice recommended Harmony.
The partnership launched in February 2019, with Airbnb also offering funding to support a temporary business manager for a period of 6 months. But has this partnership been enough to sustain the co-operative? And what other challenges are faced by the co-operative model in the cut-throat world of contract cleaning?
These questions will be addressed in part two of this series.