Taylor MacLean, one of the janitors not hired by Deep Down Cleaning
TAYLOR MACLEAN’S MISTAKE WAS WORKING WHILE BLACK. He’s sure of it. So are the six other janitors who worked with him cleaning the Founders Square office complex in Halifax. All of them are of African descent. None of them were kept on when the contract to clean the building recently changed hands.
The seven workers were fired after they announced their decision to file a racial discrimination complaint with the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission against the new contractor, Deep Down Cleaning.
The janitors are represented by the Service Employees International Union Local 2. What happened to them is unusual says Darius Maharishi, a union organizer.
“It’s very typical in this industry when a new contractor comes in that they keep the workers who are already working there, who know the building and have experience cleaning it.” The fact Deep Down Cleaning didn’t do that is the basis of the racial discrimination complaint, says Maharishi.
The janitors and their supporters gathered outside Founders Square in protest March 23, chanting “justice for janitors” and waving placards with the message “Black Workers Matter.” .
“This is what racism looks like,” local activist El Jones told the small crowd. “It’s looks like black workers being kicked out of their minimum wage jobs where they are barely supporting themselves in the first place.”
The group Working While Black in Nova Scotia issued a statement condemning the company for not rehiring any of the black janitors.
"Racism, whether at work or elsewhere, is too often brushed off as something that is no longer a problem," the statement said. "The reality is that racism is embedded into our economic system. Low-wage workers are disproportionately people of colour, who face multiple barriers to meaningful, stable employment."
Twice-daily rallies in front of the office building got public support for several days.
NO JANITORS MATTER.
ALL WORKERS ARE DISPOSABLE.
Deep Down Cleaning has taken over cleaning contracts in Halifax for 20 years. They say their usual procedure when taking over is to hire its own cleaners. It is left to the outgoing contractor to find work for the workers pushed out.
The fact this is "accepted practice" only makes matters worse. SEIU organizer Darius Maharishi points out it only reveals a broader discrimination that affects all workers.
"Deep Down is basically saying that they generally have a scorched-earth policy towards janitors and their livelihoods. They are publicly admitting that their standard practice when taking over a building is to throw everyone out on the street.
This blatant disregard for workers and their livelihoods is appalling and other cleaners, property managers, and tenants should take note. Deep Down will bring conflict to any building they get a contract at through dispossessing the most vulnerable workers in the building.
This conversation started by us saying Black workers and their livelihoods matter. Deep Down’s response is that NO Janitors matter and ALL workers are disposable."
Getting new jobs not good enough
The janitors have all since found new jobs at other buildings in the city through the company they originally worked for.
Mirshahi says just because the janitors have found new jobs doesn’t let the property management company Armour Group “off the hook.”
It was the Armour Group that immediately banned the janitors from the downtown building upon learning of their plan to file a complaint with the human rights commission.
He said the workers are now adding what they call Armour Group’s “retaliation” against the workers to their human rights complaint.
The company said it issued a Property Protection Act notice — essentially banning the janitors from the building — out of concerns the media attention could compromise “the maintenance of a safe and respectful workplace for all, including our tenants.”
A tenant speaks out
Robert Wright is a clinical social worker and internationally recognized expert on race relations with offices in Founders Square. In an email to the online news site Halifax Examiner Wright wrote in part:
“I am particularly interested in this travesty of racial injustice because my offices are in Founders Square and I have gotten to know many of these brothers and sisters. As a person who often works late into the evening I often encounter the cleaners as they efficiently and cheerfully move through my floor collecting trash, vacuuming, and mopping. I have been treated respectfully by each one and have come to enjoy our nearly daily interactions.
“Servant-like work is often underpaid work and sometimes those doing these very essential tasks are under-appreciated or even disrespected. I have heard that one excuse for the wholesale layoff of these employees is that there have been numerous complaints made about the standard of cleanliness of the building. I have been in that building for several years and have never had occasion to complain about the state of cleanliness in the mornings.
A Canadian Press news story also quoted Wright:
“I have good feelings towards the Armour Group as a company, but it’s the practice of subcontracting and then turning a blind eye to whatever happens in your building and to the people that work here that I object to,” he said.
“I think it’s important for people who work in buildings like this to not take for granted the people who service them on a daily basis in some of the most humble roles.”
Wright said tenants should not allow themselves to be “passive bystanders when these kinds of injustices happen … because if we do then we’re complicit in the injustice.”
The province of Nova Scotia rents a lot of office space in Founders Square. The building itself is just steps away from the provincial legislature.
To expect that to make difference in Nova Scotia is too much to ask—so far.
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