OHS Matters: Can My Boss Make Me Clean The Toilet?

This is a query which came into the VTHC’s ‘Ask Renata’ this week:

“I work as a food packer at a food packing company based in Melbourne. Our work place has never had a cleaner, and we never have clean toilets. Someone complained to our boss that the toilet was not clean. So today he called everyone to a meeting and said he wants everyone to take turns to clean the toilets. Can you advise me: Can I say NO to him?? and where do I stand on this issue???

PS. Our workplace has no Union.”

We answered the question in a way that was hopefully of some use to the worker:

No - this situation is not acceptable. Every workplace needs to be cleaned, and there needs to be regular and proper cleaning of the toilets. 

While it may be ok for the employer to ask employees to keep the general areas clean and do general ‘housekeeping’, toilets are a separate issue. There is nothing to prevent an employer designating one of the employees to be a cleaner (this is not an ‘illegal’ thing to do), but it’s not ‘standard procedure’. Workers who work as cleaners need training in order to clean properly, use the chemicals properly and so on. So, if the employer is asking the workers generally to clean the toilets, etc, then this is inadequate.

Under the OHS Act the employer must provide and maintain, so far as is reasonably practicable, a working environment that is safe and without risks to health. This includes providing and maintaining ‘amenities’ - eg toilets, washbasins, and so on. The employer must also provide information, instruction, supervision and training to employees.

There is also a Compliance Code that sets out what the employer must provide in terms of toilets.

Note that it says that the employer must maintain the amenities – keep them clean and hygienic.

I note that you’ve said that you are not in a union and that there is no union at your workplace - but you have a legal right to join a union and I strongly recommend that you do so as knowing your rights is only half the battle – you’ve got to have the power to enforce your rights under the law, and health and safety.   I doubt that you have an elected health and safety rep at your workplace... so at the moment what I recommend that you do is contact WorkSafe Victoria with a complaint and ask for an inspector to attend - ask that this be anonymous. You can get the contact details at worksafe.vic.gov.au.

You need to find out what union you would belong to and join asap.

But will the worker take any action? He probably won’t contact WorkSafe, and even if he does, there is some doubt our regulator will do very much or make much of a difference, unfortunately. He may not stand up to his boss – if he’s the only one. Hopefully he will join his union, and encourage others to join the union – and the union will go in and organise what is clearly a terrible place.

What this shows is that many workers are working in disgusting conditions, with employers who could not care less. It shows how powerless many workers are and why it’s so important to not only know your rights, but to be in a union AND to be an active member in an active union.