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Behind closed doors: Making cleaning work visible

15 March 2024

There has been little research on the experiences of migrant women working in domestic cleaning in the UK, especially outside large cities. Dr Nicola Chanamuto presents the findings of a recent study aiming to better understand this valuable workforce.

EVERY FRIDAY morning, Roza, 32, drops her children at school and spends three hours working for an elderly lady client of her employer; a locally based cleaning business. It was not long after visiting the home of this client that Roza realised she was not only providing a cleaning service, but also company. Older clients particularly value the friendly conversation and extra household jobs she can do. Roza explains that older clients, ‘try to share... they are very lonely ... they just want to talk with me. They ask me about my family, they ask me about living in Poland...’. Roza provides a lifeline of care for isolated clients who may not see many other people during the week. She says, ‘I feel like I’m looking after them. Because some of them really struggle with just everyday life.’

Roza is part of a global workforce of over 75.6 million domestic workers. Many domestic workers worldwide are hidden and work cash-in-hand, with much of the sector unregulated. Research looking at migrant domestic cleaners is important at a time when there is a focus in politics on reducing migration to the UK.

While domestic cleaners play a central role in caring for clients and their homes, the complex realities of this work are not fully understood or acknowledged. The purpose of the Behind Closed Doors study was to learn about the lives of a group of foreign-born women who had migrated to the UK and were working as domestic cleaners in a city in the East Midlands region.

Cleaning involves a variety of different skills, including decision-making and discretion, and yet it is devalued in society. Cleaners should not be seen as low-skilled workers but should instead be recognised for the service they provide.

The Behind Closed Doors study looked at:

  • How migrant women become involved in domestic cleaning work.
  • What kind of opportunities and challenges are associated with cleaning work.
  • What migrant women feel about cleaning.
  • How migrant women balance their paid work with caring for their families.
  • How cleaning itself involves caring for others.

Hearing from migrant women who clean

For this study, in-depth biographical interviews were conducted with 11 domestic cleaners of migrant origin aged between 20-50 years old, most of whom had been resident in the UK for 10–13 years. The participants also created a timeline of their work histories before and after moving to the UK, to show how cleaning featured in their lives.

The women’s experiences do not necessarily represent those of all cleaners, but they reveal the opportunities and challenges associated with this work and how these change over time. The women were of different nationalities, which means that the findings are not particular to one ethnic or national group.

Cleaning as part of the migratory journey

The women in this study had come to the UK for various reasons, including looking for work, seeking an adventure, moving with a partner, coming to study, or a combination of these factors. Some of the women had struggled to find suitable work in their country of origin, but they were also motivated to move by other factors.

Most of the participants were educated to college or university level when they moved to the UK. When they were young, they had imagined themselves in professional occupations in their homeland, but this had not happened.

The women in this sample did not plan to work as cleaners but had taken up this work in the UK because of specific difficulties. These included being unable to find their desired job, barriers to accessing childcare to enable them to work longer hours, difficulties meeting English language requirements for certain jobs, or a lack of confidence in their English language ability.

This study found that the women’s work trajectories were not simple. Instead, their career pathways had been shaped by shocks (such as bereavement, relationship breakdown or unemployment), turning points (such as having children) and repetition (such as returning to previous employers).

The findings demonstrate that it is important not to stereotype foreign-born women or treat them as one homogenous group. Instead, understanding cleaners’ migratory journeys and work histories across the life course helps us take a holistic view rather than a momentary snapshot.

Reasons for entering and leaving cleaning work

Some of the women interviewed had since moved out of cleaning work or were planning to do so. However, cleaning was still described as a back-up strategy, even for those who had moved into professional jobs. This reflects their feelings of insecurity in the context of the local labour market.

This research shows that, although they face hardships, cleaners do not see themselves as victims. The women in this study were often ambitious and able to find ways of making a success of their work, for example, by starting their own cleaning business.

These cleaners were aspirational and had hopes for the future. Their ambitions included: building a successful business or getting their dream job, moving to a new house, getting married, visiting relatives overseas and seeing their children do well at school. National studies show that these desires reflect those of the locally born population in the UK.

Cleaners provide care in their communities

Cleaning work is a caring activity. Cleaners care for people, homes, and society in general. Indeed, domestic services make all other forms of work possible, by alleviating the burden of housework for individuals and families.

Domestic cleaning services also enable many people to live with dignity and independence. For older clients particularly, cleaners provide emotional as well as practical support. Indeed, a visit from a domestic cleaner can be a valuable link to the wider community. The women in this study connected with lonely and vulnerable clients through their work, including hoarders and those with long-term illnesses.

Migrant cleaners see themselves as taking care of British society, but due to the hidden nature of their work, their contributions to local communities often go unnoticed and under-valued.

Working behind closed doors, often without formal employment contracts, cleaners are largely hidden from public view. Given the lack of understanding of the physical and emotional demands of their work, cleaners are seldom recognised as skilled workers.

Caring for cleaners themselves

Cleaners also need care. This can be provided through workplace protections, fair wages, and better regulation of the sector. Related services such as good public transport and accessible childcare also help cleaners do their jobs more easily.

While cleaners of migrant backgrounds fulfill a valuable role in their local communities, they are not always valued themselves.

Migrant households have care needs, which may be different to those of non-migrant households. Migrant women can face additional barriers to achieving their goals, including discrimination, language proficiency, immigration rules restricting the ability to work, and commitments related to transnational family life (families living across two or more countries).

Cleaners are required to work around clients’ needs and arrange their schedules accordingly, which can be challenging. In many cases, flexibility from employers and clients (for example, agencies allowing cleaners to adjust their working hours) made a significant difference to cleaners’ ability to keep a job.

The importance of respecting domestic cleaning as real work

Larger-scale campaigns are vital to ensure the regulation of cleaning agencies and prevent exploitation in the form of unreasonable workloads, illegal low wages and a lack of physical and human resources resulting in unsafe working conditions.

If we do not recognise domestic cleaning as ‘real’ work, we cannot ensure cleaners’ safety.

Some challenges encountered by the cleaners in this study included: the non-payment or late payment of wages, unexpected changes to working hours, pressure to use chemicals without protective clothing, driving dangerous company cars, sexual harassment, racist treatment, unreasonable workloads and specific physical health conditions caused by manual work.

If cleaning is only considered a ‘dead end job’, it will continue to be devalued in society. Instead, cleaning work should be rewarded with fair wages, reliable in terms of employers and contracts, and recognised as essential to our communities.


Based on the findings of this unique study, several recommendations are made:

  • Talk about cleaning as a form of care, to humanise workers and raise its value
  • Recognise the contributions of migrant workers to the cleaning sector and create various channels to ensure their voices are heard
  • Campaign nationally for good working conditions for agency-employed cleaners
  • Ensure workplace protections including wage security, fair workloads, adequate breaks and protective equipment
  • Develop routes to qualification which are inclusive of domestic cleaners
  • Make personal coaching and small business support accessible to self-employed cleaners.

Dr Nicola Chanamuto is based at the University of Lincoln.

The full Behind Closed Doors study can be found at: http://tinyurl.com/365kjcdv​

For more information visit http://tinyurl.com/krjpzjr5 or contact: nchanamuto@lincoln.ac.uk