Worker exploitation in less regulated countries is something we’re extremely conscious of in the fashion world, and thankfully, recent years have highlighted it as an important point of discussion.
It must also be acknowledged, though, that our regulations here in Germany are still not perfect, and the labour market leaves a lot of space for companies to exploit workers - especially migrant workers. This is why we were delighted to talk to Eric and Dina from Clean Collective - a Berlin-based cleaning service that promotes a respectful working environment for people immigrating to Germany.
Clean Collective was founded by Lobe Block’s own Olivia Reynolds, in order to “give security and to support migration people in leading a self-determined, independent and fear-free life in Germany”. They’re currently in the throes of a crowdfunding campaign to raise the startup costs of the business and provide the legal costs for entry into the Golden Share system - that would prevent the company from ever being sold and profits being removed. You can learn more and support their crowdfunding campaign here.
On the windy but warm terrace of Lobe Block, Berlin, we chatted with Eric and Dina to learn the ins and outs of the project, the challenges they’ve faced and the vision they have for the future.
Clean Collective aims to prove that a balance can exist between profitability and respectful employment. Their focus is of course the cleaning industry, but their approach is universal.
“The vision is basically proposing and putting on the table new questions for other companies, so they can start to change their ways… Not just on Instagram posts, but actually inside their companies to change things, to drift the market slowly to another direction… We aim to please our employees as much as we aim to please our customers.”
A crucial element of Clean Collective’s work is offering contracts to their workers, incentivising them to move away from freelance work, and out of the undeclared market.
“We want to make it more attractive for the person to come to us - even if part of the salary goes to insurance and social security.”
“We know that in the underground employment market, there is no security for employees. Jobs can be cancelled last minute, so it doesn't provide the stability and security for a settled life.”
Unfortunately a culture exists of large ex-startups, like Uber for example, exploiting a loophole of hiring staff as ‘freelancers’ as it makes life easier for the company. But it doesn’t make life easier for the employee, since it restricts their financial and social protection.
”And the problem is that in Germany we actually have a great social security system, so we want to make sure people have the benefits of it when they live here… If you come to Germany and start out as a freelancer, you’re essentially left to your own devices when something does go wrong.”
On top of the respectful employment aspects, Clean Collective places a lot of importance in encouraging social and cultural integration.
“Since it’s a lonely job and people are cleaning by themselves, they don’t meet many people, so the idea is that we wanted to have people meet through the workplace through regular social events and community-based aspects where we could actually build up a network, making people more comfortable in their daily life… On a monthly basis we would have community-based meals and just time to spend together as a team.”
German bureaucracy is intimidating even for German speakers. For those just arriving here, though, with limited or non-existent German skills, this intimidating bureaucratic maze of forms, appointments and phone calls can become a highly stressful and anxiety-inducing experience. Clean Collective helps lessen this burden by offering their workers support with their administrative papers.
“Coming to Germany without any sort of assistance can be tough. It’s just a jungle of forms. Especially for people that come from situations that aren’t as fortunate as us… Whenever the project is financially stable, we also want to actually send people to German lessons on their working times. So we can assure that we encourage them to learn German, and they don’t always just rely on us… This would be a process that can help people settle down.”
Clean Collective are currently running a crowdfunding campaign in order to develop a financial structure that is both efficient and sustainable.
“The collected money will enable us to invest in a proper office as well as a kitchen and a hosting area… A real place where people can feel comfortable, and that will enable us to perform our social missions through regular gatherings… We also want to have a bed, always available, for people who may have personal problems where they can always go if they need.”
“We would also use this money to switch our legal status to a steward ownership through a GmbH with the Golden Share system, preventing our company from ever being sold and protecting our profits from being extracted from our missions. This would therefore protect our workers from exploitation forever.”
Eric and Dina both have experiences working in major corporations, and so we were curious how they perceived the pursuit of social responsibility in larger companies versus smaller companies.
“The business we want to achieve is something very personal, which means that it can all go well at the beginning because we know everyone. But how do you keep this going at a massive level when we extend to other cities or other countries?... I think it’s about giving away some of the powers and decisions to decentralize a bit so that people are still involved.”
“It's difficult changing multinational corporations that have been built purely on profit from their conception. They're often tied up in endless chains of responsibility and shareholders. But if you want to change towards more social responsibilities in business in general, you have to start on the inside of your organisation. If you want to promote gender equality for example, you should start in addressing those issues within your own company first. That's how change really happens. Posting about it is nice, but I think what we really need is accountability… I think going forward, this will definitely become bigger and bigger and more important to the consumer… Of course, it’s a privileged position to say that, to care about transparency and social accountability, because not everyone has the luxury of doing something, but I think in this case, it’s definitely a nice thing to be able to build a company around different goals right from the start.”
Thank you to Eric, Dina, Olivia and Clean Collective team for your inspiring work. You can support their crowdfunding campaign here, and find the rest of their links below.
Words by Ewan Waddell.