Bruna Bringel is proudly wearing an orange hi-vis vest, blue gloves and a mask as she cleans with a small team at Sydney’s Bondi Beach.
“We clean the rubbish bins, anything that people might touch,” she says. “We clean all the railings, all the bus stops.”
The 27-year-old qualified pastry chef is originally from Brazil and in Australia on a student visa. She lost her restaurant job last month when Sydney went into lockdown.
Without an income, she feared being unable to pay the $300 per week rent on her small studio in the inner-city suburb of Redfern, until she got a job with commercial cleaning company Olinga Services.
“I am so lucky to get this job and I am earning around $1,300 a week – about the same as working in the restaurant,” she says. “A few of us are from Brazil and have lost other hospitality jobs.”
The company is an NSW Government partner and its teams are responsible for wiping down public areas and transport sites across the city.
“We work pretty much every day of the week, even on the weekends,” Ms Bringel says.
“We get mornings shifts, night shifts. We clean the whole of Sydney.”
Giving back to the community
Olinga Services was founded six years ago by Badi Mahabat. The 42-year-old is a refugee from Liberia in West Africa, who arrived in Australia as a nine-year-old with his family.
Originally Persian, Badi’s parents were born and raised in India and follow the Baha’i faith. They later moved to rural Liberia to support other worshippers there.
“Growing up, we lived on a farm 700 kilometres from the capital Monrovia, and we had no electricity or running water. We used a coal fire to heat our food,” he says.
“In 1988, we received advice that because we were stateless, and there was a possibility of a civil war [which broke out soon after], we needed to leave.
“Our family applied for refugee status with the United Nations, and on June 15, 1988, we arrived in Australia.”
Initially, the family of eight lived in a two-bedroom house in Sydney’s Eastwood. Despite being a native English speaker, Mr Mahabat recalls being teased at school because of his accent.
“Eastwood at that time was just starting to become a migrant community, so I was one of the handful of early migrants.”
Mr Mahabat later studied accounting and law at Western Sydney University, but it was his early experiences that shaped his career choices.
Olinga Services was an offshoot of a casual labour-hire business he started with sister Shabnam.
“One of the things that Baha’is believe in is contributing back to the community,” he says.
The company now employs 600 cleaners, mostly on a casual basis. This year alone, workers have also handed out more than one million disposable face masks to the public.
They work across hotspots, often being called in to do a deep clean after a COVID-19 notification.
Keeping essential workers safe on their daily commute is also critical.
According to Olinga Services, workers sanitise more than 900 trains each day across Sydney.
“We have cleaners in major bus interchanges, sanitising buses in between drop-offs, we have them deployed across major public spaces as well,” Mr Mahabat says.
Over the past year, more than 2.6 million train carriages have been cleaned by Olinga Services under strict COVID-safe protocols.
“Essentially it comes down to wearing the proper PPE,” Mr Mahabat says.
“Our staff are aware of the dangers in the role that they’re doing, so they are keen on protecting themselves as they enter these venues.”
Calls for cleaners to be vaccinated
With so many workers transitioning from other jobs during lockdown, the United Workers Union is calling for nationwide vaccinations for cleaners, among other essential workers.
“Cleaners today are turning up to work, putting their lives at risk so that we can be safe,” says union spokesperson Lyndal Ryan.
“So all cleaners need to be vaccinated. They should be first in the queue.”
Working conditions across the cleaning sector also vary. A recent United Workers Union survey of New South Wales school cleaners found 60 per cent had worked without adequate PPE and 10 per cent used chemicals past their expiry date.
“Those who have lost jobs will take on any work to put food on the table, and many who don’t have citizenship or permanent residency are vulnerable to exploitation and may be afraid to speak up,” Ms Ryan says.
“A lot of migrant workers also don’t have access to Medicare and some don’t have access to sick leave.”
Ms Bringel, who is already fully vaccinated, praised Olinga Services and its founder for looking after its workers.
“Badi saved my life. I swear, because when the COVID hit, he saved me,” she says.
“Olinga is like my family. Now I have Colombian friends, Indian friends, Italian friends, and it makes me feel great that I’m actually helping the community.”