Worker-Owned Cleaning Cooperative Comes Glamorous to Philadelphia

When people think of franchises, the big chains – McDonald’s and Starbucks – are usually the first things that come to mind.

Big franchises operate by licensing the rights to their brands and models to individual franchisees, who pay them a percentage of their revenue — and usually pay minimum wages to their workers. Not surprisingly, large companies benefit the most.

Juan Cuautle and Amalia de la Iglesia want you to think of something different when you hear the word “privilege.”

“Usually it’s, like, a few people at the top or one person at the top who has all the money and power and then the workers are exploited,” says de la Iglesia. “We have looked at social privileges to build a more equitable and democratic situation.”

Cuautle and de la Iglesia work for the Brooklyn-based nonprofit Center for Family and Social Services for Family Life (CFL), where they helped launch Brightly, the nation’s first franchise for worker-owned, eco-friendly collaborative cleaning services. Franchising focuses on creating jobs for migrant workers, allowing them to share in the profits and earn a living wage – paving the way to a better life.

“Usually it’s, like, a few people at the top or one person at the top who has all the money and power and then the workers are exploited,” says de la Iglesia. “We have looked at social privileges to build a more equitable and democratic situation.”

What is Brightley?

Brightly was formed as part of the CFL Collaborative Development Initiative. The nearly five-year-old franchise has grown to five locations serving residential and commercial clients in New York City.

Now, they’re partnering with the non-profit organization The Welcoming Center to add Brightley’s sixth, here in Philadelphia. They plan to launch a local by May 2023 and have already begun hiring and training workers – potential owners at the Buck Building in South Philadelphia.

Goal: Build a better life by building stable jobs and lifetime agency among hard-working immigrants in Philadelphia as well.

Immigrants make up 14 percent of the population in Philly, which is a large part of the city’s growth over the past decade. In 2018, immigrants also made up about 14 percent of people living in poverty in Philadelphia, the nation’s poorest large city.

That’s not because of a lack of work—about 67 percent of the city’s immigrants participate in the labor force, according to a report from the Vera Institute of Justice, based on census data. But many of these jobs—like many held by US-born citizens—pay too little to support a family healthily, with minimum wages hovering at $7.25 for privately owned businesses, and in 2020 immigrants made up 24 percent of Philadelphia’s population. Those aged 16 or over earn the minimum wage.

“One factor, one vote,” Cowtle says. “They discuss any topic related to business, and together they decide what they will do.”

Brightly aims to change that, by changing who owns – and benefits – from the cleaning business. Prior to the start of Brightly, CFL developed more than 20 co-ops in industries ranging from childcare to handyman services. As the program director, Cuautle found that working in multiple industries made it difficult to develop successful co-ops, because they had to spend a lot of time learning the ins and outs of new occupations.

“We’re not experts at everything,” Cuautle explains.

So he decided to take a lesson from the Arizmendi Association, a group of cooperatively owned bakeries, landscaping and construction businesses that uses a trusted brand name to help multiple cooperatives in similar industries thrive. Unlike the Arizmendi Association, Brightly is a New York registered franchise, making it the first legal worker-owned cooperative franchise in the country, USA Today reported this year. In 2018, CFL established Brightly as a pilot where individual eco-friendly cleaning cooperatives use the franchise brand and a single web platform to book appointments.

Cuautle says they focused on the cleaning industry because the profession has few licensing requirements, making it easier to start new businesses, and because many CFL immigrants serving primarily in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood have experience working in the industry. The Economic Policy Institute reports that 18.5 percent of home cleaners in the United States are immigrants. The industry is also ripe for exploitation: wage abuses, harassment and abuse by customers are all common, according to the Guardian report.

CFL Brightly’s goal: to create a franchise that will pay reliable, high wages and provide safety and stability to its workers through a collaborative model where workers are their own boss. Glamorous cleaners earn $31 an hour on average; The typical wage for a home cleaner in New York City is $19.77 an hour and $16.86 an hour for office cleaners, in fact. Philly, the median wage is $18.54 an hour for a house cleaner and $15.20 an hour for a janitor.

Almost all members of the cooperative are women. They are all immigrants. Nothing is required to submit documents status.

Brightly also aims to remove the financial barriers workers face when starting a franchise. Most cleaning franchises in New York City charge an upfront fee “over $60,000” per data from Brightly’s website. There is no fee for obtaining a Brightly franchise, just five percent of the monthly royalty on revenue from each of the sites. These royalties go toward funding customer service, marketing, technology, training, and other efforts to achieve brighter long-term self-sufficiency.

Most franchises charge a monthly royalty fee of 4 percent to 12 percent of sales, the US Small Business Administration reports; Some charge additional fees. McDonald’s, for example, charges a franchise fee of about five percent plus advertising fees, plus rent in most cases, according to The Guardian.

For now, CFL is still providing some funding for the program through other fundraising efforts. Currently, there are five Brightley Cooperatives serving more than 1,000 clients, in Washington Heights, Carol Gardens, East Harlem, Tribeca and Staten Island. The franchise has about 40 owner workers. (The number fluctuates as people leave and join cooperatives.) The maximum number of co-op programs is 25 members. Many allocate up to 15 percent of revenue each month to individual administrative costs.

Brilliant co-op employees equally share their individual franchise earnings and have an equal say when it comes to making decisions, such as what rates to set for services. If a franchise-level decision needs to be made, members from all locations meet. This is how they decided to ask their workers to be vaccinated against Covid.

“One factor, one vote,” Cowtle says. “They discuss any topic related to business, and together they decide what they will do.”

CFL partners with community organizations to launch glamorous new cooperatives and provide job opportunities for local job-seeking residents. When they launched the Tribeca Cooperative, for example, they partnered with a domestic violence shelter. Here in Philly, they have been working with The Welcoming Centre, a non-profit organization that creates local economic opportunities for people from other countries.

Each Brightley co-op begins with an incubation period where the CFL educates members about co-op governance, raises legal concerns and management strategies, and practices their clean-up procedures.

The flight to Philadelphia

For Nicole Marcotte, Program Director of Entrepreneurship Programs at Welcome Center, Brightley’s franchise model addresses some of the challenges she has seen immigrant entrepreneurs face. “I’ve always been very interested in cooperatives,” Marcotte says. “Something we realized – perhaps very similar to what Juan realized – is that supporting a group of entrepreneurs who are involved in an industry is much easier than providing individual technical assistance.”

In 2019, the Welcome Center helped dozens of artists sell their wares at local crafts and farmers markets. For Marcote, creating a collaborative business, even if it’s in a different sector, seemed like a logical next step. This model will help immigrants to the city and women in unskilled labor build equality by creating stable, well-paid jobs — and create a sense of pride of ownership.

“This isn’t just a job, it’s your job,” she says. “There is always an entrepreneur in everyone, but not everyone gets the chance to make those dreams come true. So we hope this is an opportunity.”

Philly co-op will also take part in Up & Go, Brightly’s online scheduling system and member-owned app. Cuautle says the platform helps it out nicely to compete with apps like TaskRabbit, which take 15 percent of the cost of each job from its workers. Up & Go also prioritizes workers’ flexibility, allowing cleaners to choose the days that suit them best. Workers set prices on arrival based on the condition of the home. “The goal is to get more power for workers,” says de la Iglesia.

If the initial launch is successful, Marcote envisions adding more locations in Philly. She says, “We’re not the size of New York City, but I think there are definitely areas [to expand]. The Northeast also has a large immigrant population so we can see how this model could work there as well.”

As for the larger franchise, Cuautle says they will continue to expand to other cities. They have received applications from organizations in Colorado, Florida, Michigan and California.

For now, Marcotte expects the co-op to set up its headquarters in South Philly; This is where most of the people who attended the information sessions live. You expect that they will serve commercial space downtown. But that decision – and any decision about profit-sharing and hourly wages – will ultimately be made by Brightley’s local owners. Because that’s how cooperatives thrive.

More about helping immigrants in Philly from Citizen

Answering – many – calls

Citizen of the Week: Zolma Guzman

Guest Comment: The day we ran away from Kabul

Generation Change Philly: Restaurant Teacher

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