It is rare to visit the Bible when thinking about occupational health and safety but this week Australia’s Uniting Church, its Creative Ministries Network and the United Voices trade union released a report on the working condition of shopping centre cleaners.  In the report “Cutting Corners” there are many references to the Bible’s and the Church’s thoughts and actions on labour issues.

For instance, according to the report:

“…God is ‘against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan’ (Malachi 3:5).”


“…the Prophet Muhammad underlined the importance of the just wage by saying, ‘give the employee his wages before his sweat has had time to dry’.”

The Uniting Church has strong arguments to justify its involvement in social equity matters.

“Cutting Corners” was a broad report based on hundreds of telephone interviews with cleaners.  The major safety-related findings of the survey were:

“The key violations borne by shopping centre cleaners constitute a litany of injustices, from low rates of pay, pay that is not commensurate with their responsibilities, underpayment, unpaid overtime, poor record keeping that is disrespectful of employees’ entitlements, to conflict over pay.

The work environment also contributes to the oppressive burden for cleaners, with cleaners identifying:

  • areas too large to clean,
  • staff shortages contributing to excessive workloads,
  • being required to fit in extra jobs with no extra time,
  • not having the right cleaning chemicals,
  • being given inadequate equipment,
  • being required to work through breaks,

all contributing to work that is performed under pressure.

Such work systems ‘grind men and women down with excessive labour,…”

The report emphasises the mental health stressors for cleaners:

“One harmful consequence of unjust work practices is the high level of stress that cleaners experience. Survey participants are in accord with occupational health and safety research that links work stress to heart disease, family breakdown, mental illness, and musculoskeletal injuries.”

Clearly this industry sector needs particular attention to improve the overall working conditions but also the health and safety of the workers.

Significantly one cleaner, Gamal (pictured right), a case study in the report, said at the report’s launch that the social significance of cleaners is grossly underestimated by the community.  In relation, particularly, to shopping centres Gamal stated that he saw his occupation as an important element of public health.  This was a revelation to many as it is difficult to argue against.

The report is unique in its approach to workplace issues where it argues about the morality of safety, health and employment.  Repeatedly the report discusses the importance of justice, dignity and respect – terms that are rarely used in labour and OHS discussions but are increasingly infiltrating how safety and labour is managed.

It also reflects the an investigation mechanism that is broad in identifying contributory factors.  In some ways this investigation reflects the advocacy of some OHS professionals on the need to acknowledge the complexity of occupational safety issues.  This does not equate to mysterious complexity but to the need to understand the interconnectedness of  labour, safety and society.

Morality has the luxury of asking uncomfortably hard questions such as:

  • Should your workers risk their health while working for you?
  • Is it okay for the work environment not to be safety?

Few would answer yes to either of these questions but many hesitate to take the next step that would remove the possibility of these questions being asked in the first place.  Many express their morality in vague terms of “zero harm” or “legislative compliance” but can the reality of their workplaces negate the questions above?

This is the type of uncomfortable question that emerges repeatedly when reading Cutting Corners and it is words from over 100 years ago that pack the punch in this report and create a feeding of communal shame.  In 1891, Pope Leo XIII, said in his Rerum Novarum, that

“… the first thing of all to secure is to save working people from the cruelty of men of greed, who use human beings as mere instruments for money-making.  It is neither just nor human so to grind men (and women) down with excessive labour as to stupefy their minds and wear out their bodies.”

There is a lot wrong with religious institutions but we should not ignore wisdom.  Much of the scripture and edicts quoted in this report reflect the values many of us apply to safety and labour.  It is a familiar perspective but from an unusual source.

Kevin Jones