This month we take a look at an environmentally-friendly cleaning business doing things a bit differently.

Our client Redgum Cleaning Cooperative offers professional green-cleaning services to homes and offices across Melbourne’s inner, northern and western suburbs.They use a business model that is working well for the members.

We asked Ella, Eleanor, Jason, Pete and Alex who are the founding members when the business started and why;

We officially launched in February last year, but we’ve been working together on developing this idea since early 2016! We’re part of a broader network of worker-owned cooperatives called Earthworker Cooperative. Earthworker helps seed and support other worker-owned businesses in Victoria, such as Earthworker Energy Manufacturing Cooperative in Morwell.

Back then, a few of us had been working in the cleaning industry for a while and were also involved in activism and Left politics. We heard of extreme exploitation in the cleaning industry, particularly around abhorrent working conditions and sham contracting. We wanted to make decent cleaning jobs for ourselves and others, where we could have a say in how the business is run and create safe and fair working conditions.

Despite what many people assume, we didn’t actually all know each other before beginning this project, but safe to say, we’ve learnt a lot about each other over the last few years!

Can you explain the cooperative business model you use, and any benefits and disadvantages? 

The cooperative business model is similar to how you would imagine a partnership between five or more people, instead of just two, but we also have to have a board like a corporation. Cooperatives are different from a small business or corporate structure in two very distinct ways.

  • The majority of workers wholly own the business, we have no external shareholders. Currently we have five worker-owners and three workers in training, which means Redgum is owned collectively by the workers. We each own an equal share in the business and therefore profits can be shared amongst workers as dividends. Through our shares, we officially are granted a say in how the business is run, as cooperatives must be One Member = One Vote.
  • There is a non-hierarchical organisational structure. We have no boss. We all own our own workplace. We have fortnightly meetings at our office with all eight workers where key decisions are made. We divide up roles and responsibilities and share tasks around as much as possible. For example, we collectively have a say in our roster, our rates of pay, our systems and which clients to take on. When we get bigger, we may need to change our organisational structure to include a manager, but for the moment, we find this way of decision making to be the most beneficial for all. Sometimes this means things take a lot longer to get done, when compared to say, a small business when the boss/owner just calls the shots. But the upside is that when decisions are made and ideas are implemented, they are usually very sensible ones that work out for us, because eight people’s brains have contributed to the process

What sets your business apart from other cleaning services? 

As we said before, we are worker-owned, which means the cleaners (us) get to define the terms of our labour, particularly around rates of pay and conditions. That is the main difference. Because of this, we are able to market ourselves as  an ethical cleaning choice, which people seem to really like. We use only non-toxic, environmentally friendly cleaning products, so we also market ourselves as green. As a green AND ethical cleaning business, we’ve found a huge demand for our services, so much so that we have new enquiries coming through on a daily basis, despite not paying for any marketing.We get business mainly through Facebook and word of mouth.

Do you have any expansion or diversification plans? 

At the moment we are in what we call ‘consolidation’ phase. Since we’ve grown so much so fast in the last year, we have a lot of back-end system upgrades and streamlining to do before we take on more work and members. That’s another great thing about a co-op – because we’re not driven by profit, we can choose to take our time with things and not rush, unlike other small business that often fail in their first year because they try to do much, too quickly, then things start to fall apart. In saying that, we do envisage new sister cooperatives to start up this year under the Earthworker network, such as a Building and Landscaping Co-op. We plan to work together closely with them and share resources.

What gives you the most satisfaction?

We like working in a non-hierarchical way with colleagues, and having each others’ backs. We really enjoy working together towards a shared vision and goals. Like any business in its first year, it’s been a real slog, but it’s easy to come into work when you know the work you are doing is meaningful and you’re doing it with great folks. We like making clients feel happy in their clean homes.

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