Rarely Seen

by Caroline Waters

Published: 29 Nov 2015

For the last year I have chaired the EHRC’s Cleaning Sector Taskforce. For me it’s been a steep learning curve and a journey full of discovery and optimism.

This, largely ignored, sector generates revenue in excess of £8 billion to the UK economy each year, provides jobs for around half a million people, has tackled employment issues with a courageous mix of pragmatism and aspiration and contributes to the clean and hazard free environments we all encounter as we travel, learn, work, enjoy leisure activities and receive healthcare. Yet this sector and its workers remain largely invisible and are often underpaid and under appreciated.

There is no doubt that some cleaning operatives are unsure about their rights as workers, work long or night time shifts and earn salaries that are hard to live on. That’s why the Taskforce has identified three products that we believe will address these basic issues. The pocket guides to Your rights at work and associated pack for businesses will help both workers and employers understand what to expect from each other and provide opportunities for both parties to talk through any concerns that arise. The Responsible Procurement framework provides practical steps to using the procurement of cleaning services to improve the working conditions of cleaners including advice on day time contracts and considering the living wage when putting bids together.

Our final product reaches well beyond the industry itself; it asks everyone who benefits from the work of cleaners to take a minute to notice their contribution. A significant number of cleaners described situations when they had been subjected to shocking rudeness and disrespect. This is simply unacceptable. Our dignity and respect posters urge all of us to remember that clean environments don’t happen by accident; they are the result of the hard work of thousands of cleaners who deserve as much respect for a job well done as the rest of us. It’s not difficult, disruptive or expensive it just takes a simple acknowledgement, a good morning or goodnight, a thank you for a job well done, a wage that reflects the hard work and value that cleaners create all around us and an opportunity to be a recognised member of the work force.

You may wonder why I’m optimistic in the face of these challenges; well there’s plenty of great examples out there of employers and clients working together to do just these things. Take Facilicom’s unique Hostmanship programme that is training cleaning teams and clients on how to make each other and anyone else they encounter at work feel welcome. KPMG who pay all their cleaning staff the Voluntary Living Wage and have seen better performance, reduced turnover and improved quality of service in return. Servest’s leading edge reward and recognition scheme that encourages clients to identify workers who go that extra mile so that their effort can be recognised. Principle Cleaning’s commitment to training and development that has created a highly committed and skilled management team all of whom started their careers as cleaners. The Trade Unions who provide close in support to workers and tirelessly champion their rights. I’ve spoken with some of the many sector bodies such as the British Cleaning Council and Business Services Association all of whom are committed to identifying and promoting good practice. This is why I believe my optimism is well placed.

It’s simply really we all need to see the value that cleaners create and not just make assumptions about the label, we need to open our eyes to and acknowledge the important contribution that cleaners make in helping create a safer and hazard free environment and we need to see the cleaner for what they are; a worker, just like the majority of us, who deserve the same respect and gratitude we’d expect for a job well done. 

Other taskforce members have also written blogs:

► Guy Stallard (Head of Facilities at KPMG) tells how he's found chairing the Responsible Procurement in the Cleaning Working Group a positive experience and writes 'Cleaners should feel proud of their work'

► Michelle Singleton (UNISON) writes about how UNISON are proud to have been included in the project -  'The Cleaning sector has been ignored for too long'