|Photo by Cathy Cade|
Iglesias shows me the tools of her trade. From the pockets of
a short blue apron, she pulls an industrial toothbrush, a pair of
screwdrivers, a plastic spatula, an empty razor blade holder, and a
square of soft cloth. She wraps the cloth around the point of a
screwdriver and mimes scraping dirt from a hard-to-reach corner. Then
she shakes out the cloth and shows me its hemmed edge. “This used to be
a T-shirt,” she says. “We recycle
Iglesias, with four other Mexican immigrants, is co-owner of the Morgan Hill, California, cooperative Eco-Care Professional Housecleaning. She used to clean houses on her own, earning $40 or $50 for six or seven hours work using chlorine, ammonia, oven cleaner, furniture polishers, and air fresheners–products that can give house cleaners rashes, nausea, headaches, dizziness, and respiratory irritation. She thought the asthma and headaches she developed were normal reactions to dust until she switched to less-toxic cleaning methods. Now she uses vinegar to clean windows, baking soda for scouring, and liquid vegetable-based soaps bearing “Ecover” and “Dr. Bronners'” labels for general cleaning. Iglesias admits these products take longer to react and may require extra effort. “You have to remember to spray the oven first, then do your other cleaning," she says. But, she says, the headaches she gets now from work are from learning QuickBooks on the computer, not from Clorox.
Iglesias and her co-owners opened Eco-Care on Earth Day 2001 after completing a nine-month training program sponsored by WAGES (Women's Action to Gain Economic Security). They had learned about WAGES while taking English classes at a local church-sponsored learning center. WAGES, a nonprofit organization, opened in 1995 with the aim of enabling low-income women to become cooperative businessentrepreneurs. It was WAGES' early trainees who selected the house-cleaning field as a business in which they felt comfortable and experienced. The “eco-friendly cleaning” aspect was added to give the new businesses a special market niche, but, more than that, it promoted cooperative values by emphasizing workplace and client health and community well-being. Now, all of the cooperatives WAGES sponsors are eco-friendly cleaning enterprises. The WAGES training program gave Iglesias skills in communication, business, and decision-sharing with her four co-owners, and also taught her professional techniques for eco-friendly housecleaning.
Now Eco-Care Professional Housecleaning has over 50 regular customers and has won local green-business awards. Although there are four or five other cleaning companies in Morgan Hill, none of them uses least-toxic cleaning methods. Iglesias estimates that 75 percent of the cooperative's clients select Eco-Care because of its eco-safe methods. The owner-members regularly work 20-25 hours per week and earn $12/hour. Beyond increasing their take-home pay and improving their working conditions, they are able to share work responsibilities with their co-owners, share their stories with new immigrant women who sometimes drop by seeking work and hope, and they can tell the Latina community about less-toxic cleaning. Of her own life, Iglesias tells me, “My son is so proud of his mom's business. My husband was not used to how much time it took to start a new business but now he really likes what I'm doing. He's proud. He tells his co-workers about my business.”
Emma's Eco-Clean, two years older than Eco-Care, is another housecleaning cooperative WAGES helped launch. Located in Redwood City, California, Emma's has grown from five co-founders to 14 owner-members. Each new member receives training—not just in eco-safe cleaning—but in topics such as air and water pollution and energy use. The products they use are effective, biodegradable, come in minimal or recycled packaging, and are nontoxic to humans and aquatic life. When I ask what is different for their clients, co-owner Yolanda Razon says, “Before, the clients would take their children and pets and leave the house when we came to clean. Now they stay home.”
Emma's co-owners are proud of their business. They've just received one of Sustainable Northwest's “Founders of a New Northwest” awards (see www.sustainablenorthwest.org) and the 2003 Sustainable San Mateo County Award. They've obtained 100 percent medical and dental insurance for their members. They have acquired a license to re-sell products that satisfy their eco-safe screening criteria. They were exhibitors at San Francisco's Greenfest 2002, a trade show for sustainable businesses and organizations, where they met others interested in following their cooperative and green-cleaning practices. They've offered advice to prospective eco-safe cleaning cooperatives in Boston, Texas, and northern California and they're eager to share their expertise with anyone except their direct competitors.
Emma's business advisor, Monica Norley, makes another point: “We assume that low-income women can't grasp finances, but this isn't true. I've seen these women at monthly finance meetings and they understand exactly what a productivity report is, what a profit and loss statement is, and where the numbers come from. They're eager to participate in marketing. They spend hours of their own time staffing tables at eco-fairs and offering encouragement to other women.”
Formally and informally, through daily work and life, Emma's Eco-Clean, Eco-Care Professional Housecleaning, and WAGES “have the potential to change a very toxic industry,” says Esther Aguirre-Ribeiro, Eco-Care's business advisor. WAGES, now a leader in eco-friendly cleaning, calculates that Emma's Eco-Clean and Eco-Care will prevent the release of 3,863 pounds of hazardous materials to the environment each year. Aguirre-Ribeiro says, “It's hard for the workers to realize their impact, but with every award, every recognition, more people see them as leaders. And you can bet our competitors are paying attention.”
Iglesias, the woman who presented her tools, says, “I came here without experience. I want to keep learning and I want to go out into the community to talk about business success and least-toxic cleaning.” As I leave, what I remember best is Iglesias' story of her cousin who wanted a stomachache remedy. “Mayda, don't you have any bicarbonate?” she had asked. Iglesias then went to fetch the baking soda from her work tools, laughing at the idea that one of her cleaning supplies was not just safe, but edible.