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Time to see the true value of cleaning operatives

23 September 2016

There are many great organisations delivering employment best practice in the cleaning industry and properly fulfilling their duty of care for those in their employment, but unfortunately, we still all too often hear examples of poor practice where workers’ rights are not upheld.

The ongoing Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) campaign to improve cleaners’ rights can make a difference. 

Around half a million people are employed in the cleaning sector and it contributes over £8 billion to the British economy every year. The industry provides a vital service ensuring our workplaces, hospitals, schools, transport and public spaces are clean and pleasant to use, so it is really not unreasonable for cleaning operatives to want to be noticed, appreciated and treated with dignity and respect by those working with them. 

Cost no excuse

There are a number of factors which contribute to the negative perceptions of the cleaning industry and those who work in it. The procurement process is perhaps the most significant. Tough economic conditions, combined with an increasing move towards outsourced services, put a constant downward cost pressure on cleaning firms. This tends to have a domino effect on working conditions and pay. The short-term nature of many contracts can also negatively impact investment in training and development, leading to deteriorating worker conditions and service levels for clients.

This drive for the cheapest price at all costs puts pressure on employers, whose ability to create a proper and decent working environment for their operatives is severely hampered. 

Why, though, should it only be white collar workers who can take sick pay, workplace facilities and paid holidays for granted? It doesn’t have to cost the earth to treat people properly, and retention rates and productivity levels go up if you do, so it’s a win-win situation. 

What is the EHRC campaign all about?

The campaign has been developed by the EHRC and partners (including Facilicom) following the publication of The Invisible Workforce in 2014 which identified a number of areas that need addressing in the cleaning industry. An industry-led Cleaning Taskforce – chaired by Commissioner Caroline Waters – has developed practical and cost-effective solutions to the concerns raised. 

The task force, and its working groups, looked at examples of existing good and bad practice in the industry to develop their understanding of the issues. The Task Force then “committed to improving working conditions for cleaning operatives across the cleaning industry by:

  • Promoting employers’ compliance with employment law and improving workers’ understanding of employment rights
  • Improving the impact of public and private sector procurement of cleaning services on employment conditions in the sector and;
  • Encouraging the respectful treatment of cleaning operatives.”

This campaign is not based on legislation – other than correct employment practices – but relies on raising awareness and perhaps ‘pricking the conscience’ of companies so that they do the right thing and employ best practice.

The working groups developed products to help people involved in the industry meet those commitments:

  • Know Your Rights briefing pack and pocket sized guides 
  • Responsible Procurement Principles 
  • A Dignity and Respect poster campaign.

They are all available on the EHRC website (http://www.equalityhumanrights.com). The more people connected to the cleaning industry who can take a look and see how they can participate, the better. 

Since the campaign launched last year, we’ve been working with our clients and colleagues to encourage them to play their part in the campaign’s success. This has included putting campaign posters in our clients’ cleaning cupboards and promoting the campaign on the back cover of our employee magazine, as well as highlighting the issue on social media. 

Wherever we work, no matter what the environment, we push the campaign’s message to ‘See the true value’ of cleaning operatives. 

An employer of choice, not last resort 

As a family business, we know and appreciate the fact that people are our greatest asset. We treat our colleagues with dignity and respect, and pay them a fair wage. We also pay statutory sick pay as a minimum and ensure all our operatives have access to welfare amenities at their place of work. We want to be an employer of choice, not of last resort. 

There are all round benefits to treating cleaning operatives (or anyone else) with dignity and respect, and paying a fair wage. The operative has a better quality of life, the employer sees higher rates of retention – reducing recruitment and training costs – and better attendance rates. Ultimately the client gets a better cleaning service from a fully committed worker, making the relationship more stable and sustainable; bringing the virtuous circle full cycle by increasing contract renewals, job security and company profits. 

Dignity and respect for all

The campaign launched last October and no one expected overnight results for such an ingrained issue. However, the increasing incidence of longer contracts, fairer wages and daytime cleaning hours which offer workers more sociable hours are encouraging signs. 

Many cleaning operatives are already treated well, get job satisfaction and have their employment rights upheld. The growing ‘professionalism’ of the cleaning sector is also helping improve the situation. 

Fairness, dignity and respect should be values we all share. Hopefully more people will join the campaign and those values will become an integral part of relationships with cleaning operatives too.

Written by Lisa Sheppard, director of development for Facilicom UK