Most afternoons you can find Darren and Daniel washing car windows at the busy inner-city intersection of Nicholson St and Alexandra Parade.
It’s work that has become considerably harder for the two men in view of a recent crackdown by police in response to growing concerns that window washers are becoming aggressive and putting safety at risk. Police are more regularly patrolling washer hotspots and handing out $70 fines for “soliciting contributions or employment on the road”.
The amount equates to a considerable number of man hours for the washers. Daniel mentions that he was fined a few days after the blitz was announced, after making $60 for his day’s work.
At the beginning of the blitz, the Herald Sun reported that window washers can earn up to $140 a day. The newspaper’s source, a traveller from Spain, often works the same intersection as Darren and Daniel. Both men scoff at the Spaniard’s assertion. They tell me his English isn’t the best, something that seems plain after hearing the three men speak among themselves.In reality, how much a washer earns can vary significantly.
Darren tells me it’s not really a matter of good days, but good hours. Daniel agrees. He says he can make twenty to thirty dollars in a good hour, but might make very little over the rest of the day. He says he made $56 in four hours of work on Easter Sunday, about $2 less than the national benchmark for minimum wage.
Both men admit they could be earning more if they used the kind of tactics that have drawn the attention of police, but they describe themselves as “yes-men”. At red lights they thread their way through traffic, offering their service to up to fifty or sixty vehicles. It can be demoralising when several traffic-light changes pass without a single customer, but they say they respect a motorist’s right not to be bothered.
There’s some disagreement between them about how many of their fellow washers adopt this style of service, but they seem to agree that between 40 and 60 per cent might wash windows unsolicited and attempt to intimidate motorists.
For this reason, Darren somewhat supports the blitz, saying that he is never the cause of complaints to police. He believes that greater police attention might scare off the more aggressive washers. Daniel disagrees, arguing that it’s the more aggressive who are more likely to weather the police attention, and that it’s the respectful washers who will be driven out of business.
The men sheet home some of the blame for the blitz to suggest that part of the problem has is to do with the media attention given the issue. They feel the coverage has linked them to violence, intimidation and tax-free riches. Daniel says that after the initial news reports, media attention, he stopped washing for a few days, feeling too embarrassed to work the roads. When he returned, he noticed a marked increase in the number of cars refusing his service. He says that since the media attention, the 50 per cent or so of motorists who hadn’t made up their minds about the washers have had their minds made up for them.
It’s hard work and they don’t enjoy it, but neither of the men have much choice. Daniel tells me that “most days I wake up with nothing in my pocket, so I have to do this”.
It’s the same for Darren, who spends half his day looking for work, and the other half at the intersection, depending on the weather. “Do you think we want to be out here, washing windows to make a dollar?” he asks. He knows the pay is poor, but he’s been unable to find other work, and his jobseekers’ allowance leaves him about $40 a week after paying rent for a room in a boarding house. Working as a washer for around five hours a day gives him enough for a packet of cigarettes, some bread, milk and basic foodstuffs. Enough to survive, but not by much.