The Cleaning sector has been ignored for too long

by Michelle Singleton

Published: 19 Oct 2015

UNISON is delighted that the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) embarked on this important project looking at the cleaning workforce and recognising the potential poor employment practices (UNISON has over 40,000 members who work as cleaners across both the public and private sector). We are particularly pleased that we were invited to be part of the taskforce set up to explore the issues further.

The cleaning sector has been ignored for too long and this work will go a long way to highlight issues in the sector and to raise the profile of cleaners in the workplace.

The initial research established what many of us have suspected for some time, that despite many areas of good practice, cleaners are still a largely invisible workforce and can be subject to some of the worst employment practices and human rights abuses in the UK . 

Key issues for all of us such as fairness, dignity and respect were all recurring themes for dissatisfaction amongst the workers in this sector.

UNISON is proud to say that we were included in this project in the early stages when some of our members were involved in the focus group research. The public sector is perhaps not generally where you would expect to find the worst abuses, however, our members were quick to point out many issues that concerned them.

They reported that some of them were not allowed to use communal staff areas, did not have access to internal job adverts or a work email address, did not feel adequately supported and that standards in training and supervision were getting worse whilst demands and workloads were getting unmanageable.  Many felt they were treated as second class workers or just felt invisible.

In a follow up email to 7,000 members informing them of the further work the Commission was about to undertake, we received a torrent of emails grateful that someone was  recognising cleaners and their issues and many emails giving further examples of poor behaviour.

One member who works as a cleaner in a primary school told us that respect was at an all time low and that she and her colleagues, despite being the people expected to clear up any vomit from a recent outbreak of the highly contagious norovirus were not included in the Health and Safety talk for teachers and support staff about it (a meeting where those who attended were also given flu jabs).

The full Commission study revealed a much wider picture of potential issues such as under payment or even non-payment of wages, pressure to come into work when sick, denial of paid holiday, unrealistic workloads, freedom of association problems and limited access to redress.

The work that the Commission  has subsequently undertaken in pulling together a cross sector taskforce of employers, client contractors, sector experts (including cleaners themselves) and trade unions, with the aim of getting buy in from all those around the table to promote better practices has been ambitious. 

The diverse groups and the varying perspectives of this large taskforce were sensitively handled and the group very quickly developed a broad trust in the shared objectives of the project.

Although the final recommendations and products may not be everything that a trade union would have hoped for (falling just shy of recommending a preference for Living Wage bids for contracted services), there is no doubt that the taskforce suite of products represent a significant and necessary step in the right direction.

This is important work and is hopefully just the beginning of collectively ensuring better working conditions for our cleaners.