"The pension and superannuation ages need to be raised to 70 years and indexed to longevity, the Productivity Commission has warned in a report that reveals the ageing of the population is a much bigger threat than previous Treasury reports have suggested” – The Australian November 22, 2013.
With a working day that begins at 6pm in the city, and ends ten and a half physically demanding hours later at Newport, Slavka “Suzie” Kotevski posed a question many low paid employees were thinking after the Productivity Commission report was released last year.
“I don’t know what they think we are _ robots or what we are?”
Suzie’s query was broadcast on ABC News. It was her biggest audience yet, although in no way her first.
Suzie has been making her presence felt for almost 20 years as an active campaigner for a fair go for cleaners in Melbourne. Twenty years as a cleaner has taught her that what looks to many outsiders to be simply a variation on a household chore is a physically demanding occupation. Entire shifts are spent on your feet, walking, lifting, pushing and climbing stairs. Over time it takes a toll.
“I work every day. I am still working hard,” says Suzie.
“I have my neck sore from those vacuum cleaners. My back is sore and my leg. My hands have arthritis from too much work.”
If the pronouncement from the Productivity Commission about delaying access to the pension to 70 years of age failed to reflect the sometimes debilitating effects of physical work, it also showed a lack of understanding of its meagre rewards. As much as Suzie, at 64, would like to retire, she cannot imagine being able to afford it.
“For me, now, life is a little bit easier because it’s time for me to stop, but the money is not enough to stop. I like to retire, but how to retire? Too many bills. I don’t know what to do.” Hers is a dilemma to which there is no easy answer, yet the indomitable fighting spirit Suzie has displayed since joining United Voice remains.
United Voice exists to advance the cause of a diverse group of workers responsible for essential services such as cleaning, early childhood education, ambulance, security and manufacturing. Suzie has been a member for almost a quarter of a century, having joined in 1989 soon after she began work as a cleaner with the Department of Defence.
Suzie never was a stranger to hard work. She was born in rural Macedonia a few years after the Second World War ravaged Europe. She was the youngest of eight children and the family was desperately poor.
“My mother was left with three kids when my father died,” Suzie recalls. “He died when he fell putting the roof on a barn. He was a wood cutter. My mum would not see him for two months, three months at a time. He would go out into the snow. My mum would go out into the mountains to dig roots.”
An older brother migrated to Australia first, and eventually in 1970 Suzie, her mother and several other brothers and sisters followed. Suzie did factory work until she and her husband started a family. After their fourth child was born she returned to the workforce into that cleaning job with the defence department.
Suzie understands the importance of work as a source of independence and dignity. “After my last child is two years old I start working part time with Defence Department. Just to have a little bit extra money for the kids.
“A job is very important for everything. A job is supporting our life. Stay home is no good. To find something together to work is much better. Stay home there’s no money, (instead there is) nervousness, stress. You earn a little bit of money then you are happy, especially we need to support the kids through school. Four kids, that’s not easy to clothe them, to buy those things they need, for them.”
And at work Suzie quickly came to understand the importance of union and unity. In the mid-1990s she was a leading figure in a five day strike at the defence department. A new contractor took over the cleaning role with ambitions of slashing numbers and intensifying work in an already physically stressful job.
“When I got the union it was a little bit easier. We were very strong,” she recalls.
“In 1995 we stay for five days on the picket line and we win. At the time they made me delegate for the union. I talk in broken English, but they understand what I say. There was no cleaning for five days and after meeting for two days right through, the big bosses from the company, in the end they say ‘enough’. Everybody happy. First time we did it, and we win it.”
Those kids of Suzie’s have grown up now and she takes pride in having raised a family that reflects the diversity of Australia. The cultures represented among her sons in law, and her son’s fiancé include Italian, Bulgarian, Macedonian and earlier Australian arrivals. “All cultures are in my house,” she says. “I am so proud of them.”
Suzie was instrumental in winning the first Clean Start agreement for city office cleaners in Melbourne and she has been in the front rank over the past 12 months as cleaners press for a new deal.
Clean Start mark one lifted wages for city cleaners significantly and the battle to lift those wages again, by four per cent,already has been a protracted one. Suzie, however, reckons it is a battle that must be won even as big contracting companies such as the Glad Group resist paying a living wage for cleaners.
The use of sub-contracting companies has been used to undermine wages and conditions. The new Clean Start agreement would put an end to that by ensuring sub-contracted workers are paid the same as other cleaners.
“Many of the companies they don’t pay the special city rate. It is time they understand they have to be fair with the workers,” she says.
And that, Suzie reckons, goes for the Productivity Commission too.