• David Sharp
  • 21 October 2015

Industry taskforce unveils campaign to improve the working conditions of cleaners

The cleaning sector contributes over £8 billion pounds to the British economy every year and now a campaign to promote good working conditions has been launched by an industry-led taskforce set up by the Equality and Human Rights Commission.  The taskforce, chaired by EHRC Deputy Chair Caroline Waters, includes leading businesses, trade associations and trade unions.

The Commission convened the taskforce following publication of its report The Invisible Workforce: employment practices in the cleaning sector and set out the findings on employment practices in the commercial cleaning sector in England, Scotland and Wales. The report found the following:

  1. Dignity and respect- Workers did not always feel they are afforded the same dignity and respect shown to others in the workplace. A significant number told us they are treated differently and worse than others, harassed and abused. Workers spoke of being ‘invisible’ and ‘the lowest of the low’. In most cases this was a result of the treatment by their supervisors, the client and the public.
  2. Equality - Most cleaning firms had equality policies, and in some cases offered equality training to staff. Migrant workers reported difficulties understanding basic employment documentation and some reported discriminatory treatment. Although most pregnant women were treated well, some reported poor treatment or even being sacked or dismissed as a result of their pregnancy. Word of mouth recruitment is a commonly reported route into the sector and in many cases this led to the informal segregation of the workforce by different nationalities.
  3. Pay - Contract value determines what cleaning firms are able to pay workers. Low pay was prevalent across the sector with wages close to, or at, the National Minimum Wage. A significant number of workers experienced problems with the under-payment or non-payment of wages. In some cases failure to resolve this led to Employment Tribunal cases.
  4. Access to redress - Many workers expressed concerns about changes to terms and conditions, perceptions of different treatment and non-payment of wages. Most of the cleaning firms have grievance policies and procedures of some kind. Workers were often not aware of these procedures, and many were scared of complaining in case they lost their job.
  5. Working hours, breaks and leave - It didn’t find widespread use of zero hours contracts except in in the hospitality and leisure sector. Work intensification appears to be a growing problem with many workers reporting unrealistic workloads. Clients often did not provide adequate facilities for workers to take breaks, such as rest rooms. Some workers felt pressurised into coming into work when they were sick.
  6. A safe working environment - Workers raised few health and safety concerns. All cleaning firms had health and safety policies in place, offered relevant training of some kind, and provided workers with the personal protective equipment they needed.
  7. Trade unions and collective bargaining - No examples were found of outright prohibition on freedom of association and collective bargaining. A few examples were found of workers who said they had been discriminated against, or victimised, due to their membership of a trade union or similar organisation.
  8. Forced labour - No indicators of forced labour were found such as the retention of documents or threats of violence or denunciation to the authorities. Systemic under-payment of wages may be a sign of forced labour. Some workers perceived requests to work overtime as compulsory.
  9. The impact of outsourcing - The vast majority of clients outsourced their cleaning services. Contracts often place cleaning firms under enormous pressure to deliver a high quality service at the lowest cost possible. This often has a negative impact on employment practices, affecting pay, the intensity of work, job security, training and working hours. Short-term contracts that are renewed frequently fail to encourage positive relationships developing between clients and cleaning firms and contribute to these pressures.

The report also found many examples of good practice. These included cleaning firms with policies in place to promote equality and also clients who entered into longer-term contracts.

Caroline Waters, Equality and Human Rights Commissioner and taskforce Chair said:

"The Commission’s role is to promote and enforce the laws that protect our rights to fairness, dignity and respect. It has been a great privilege to have worked over the past year or so with so many people who are committed to improving the working conditions of cleaning operatives.

It is fantastic that taskforce members drawn from across business, industry, trade associations, government, voluntary bodies and trade unions have come together with their thoughts, ideas and energy, and with a real appetite for tackling the problems our original report revealed.

We very much hope the tools we have now produced will help to bring real and lasting change for commercial cleaning operatives."