Are cleaning services ready for the frontline?

Cleaning services have moved into the spotlight as the return to the workplace accelerates. But from low wages and insecure employment to lack of equipment and unfavourable immigration policies, obstacles need to be overcome if the sector is to meet the challenge. Adam McCulloch reports

The coronavirus crisis has led to a reappraisal of what constitutes an “important job”. Particularly when statistics suggest that key workers are more likely to die of Covid-19 than those of us who are able to work from home.

But how deep is this new appreciation? Will it lead to lasting change? One bus driver on Twitter last week, commenting on media reporting of key workers’ vulnerability to the virus, put it like this: “It’s funny, as a bus driver I’ve gone from hero saving the nation to ‘low skilled’. Oh well, nice while it lasted.”

Cleaners are one group who have forever been in the employment twilight. Little seen by most employees, they arrive in deserted workplaces at, say, 5am, work a three-hour shift then return home, only to perhaps do another shift in the evening.

But now, they are in the limelight. Employers and government are referring glibly to “deep cleans” and the like, without much discussion of the people who are going to carry these out and whether they are ready, have been supported and whether there are enough of them.

The cleaners are doing a very essential job to make everyone safe so the situation needs to improve – companies need to be held to account if they fail to implement the right measures” – Henry Chango Lopez, IWGB

Industry demographics

According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the cleaning industry employs over 450,000 people, is predominantly female and has a higher than average number of people from ethnic minorities, migrant and older workers. Its workforce is comparatively old compared with the overall UK workforce, with ages 45-55 making up 26% and ages 55+ making up a further 22%.

These figures immediately raise questions over worker safety when it is considered that BAME workers and older workers are among the most vulnerable to Covid-19. A relatively high proportion of cleaners are also facing immigration difficulties. Unlike some groups, nurses for example, cleaners aren’t automatically granted visa extensions. The NHS extension covers visas that expire between 31 March and 1 October 2020.

Satbir Singh, chief executive of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, says the extension has “overlooked hundreds of thousands of people within the health system and outside, and other key roles”. In some cases, teams of health workers, including cleaners and porters, risk being split up and depleted at this crucial time by the policy. Singh says the scheme should be extended to key workers in and beyond the NHS and care sector, including bus drivers and cleaners, both high risk occupations during the crisis.

Some might argue that cleaning services have been hobbled by policy and practice at the very time we need them most.

For the industry to meet the challenge successfully, it’s clear it will have to step up: this won’t be straightforward given its reputation for insecure employment, low wages and a lack of professionalism.

According to Henry Chango Lopez, president of the Independent Workers of Great Britain, which has been involved in trying to improve pay and conditions for cleaners in several cases, many cleaners have worked for facilities firms that have left them feeling exploited, often being paid only the minimum wage. He has witnessed several cases where cleaners have been paid incorrectly.

PPE difficulties

Now he is seeing additional issues: “Covid has exacerbated cleaners’ problems. A lot of companies are not providing PPE. Some firms have moved cleaners to locations that are hard to get to using public transport. They have cut hours but not put workers on furlough and have left workers without any income. Others have been made redundant – again without first using the furlough scheme. And many companies refuse to engage with unions.”

Some workers have been told to bring their own PPE says Chango Lopez, adding that in one case he knows, a worker was sacked because he wouldn’t provide his own PPE.

He maintains that with the onus on easing people back to the workplace, the government needs to take action and implement policies to help ensure workers have the right PPE to do the job. He says: “The cleaners are doing a very essential job to make everyone safe so the situation needs to improve – companies need to be held to account if they fail to implement the right measures. 

“Cleaners should be applauded in the same way as everyone else who are key workers.”

Outsourcing

The outsourced nature of the industry, with tenders so often based on low prices, is widely blamed for its poor working practices. One cleaning company, Regional Services, pinpoints the dangers of the model, and states in a blog post: “Low cost cleaning fails to encourage positive relationships between the cleaning company and client, and can contribute to a decline in the working conditions for the cleaners.”

Regional Services has about 700 clients, mostly in London, taking in diverse environments including NHS dentists, GP surgeries, office and commercial properties and schools.

As demand rises, the firm is planning to stick to its ethos of having each cleaner assigned dedicated jobs. “We like to keep the same cleaners doing the same jobs, they don’t get moved around to new offices each day. So each new client will get a dedicated cleaner. Therefore the hours a cleaner works does not tend to change,” digital marketing manager Marcus Lobow tells Personnel Today. He adds that Regional Services is a Living Wage service provider, meaning it pays its London cleaners a minimum of £10.75 per hour “when the client agrees”.

But how will cleaning services meet the Covid-19 challenge? Training will be crucial, says Lobow. 

“In terms of workplace practices, I think many companies will need to increase the amount of training they provide. As demand goes up, new cleaners will need to be recruited and they will need to be trained. We train all of our cleaners; this will help protect them but also lessens their fears. We clean for a number of medical practices and have carried out deep cleans of the area after patients with Covid-19 were confirmed there. To do this safely we trained a number of managers and cleaning operatives to carry out these high-risk cleans. They carried out these tasks in full PPE.”

Regional Services has seen demand fluctuate with many offices closing but others asking for deep cleans and increases in their weekly cleaning.

“We hope that going forward people will realise the importance of cleaners (and other essential workers) and will treat them with dignity, respect and agree to pay them a fair wage,” says Lobow.

New technology

Coronavirus has made cleaners’ jobs more demanding. Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy guidance states: “Workplaces should be cleaned more frequently, with a focus on regularly-touched objects such as door handles and keyboards. Employers are told to provide hand-washing facilities or hand sanitisers at entry and exit points.”

We train all of our cleaners; this will help protect them but also lessens their fears” – Marcus Lobow, Regional Services

This suggests facilities managers will need to invest more time in their relationships with cleaning services. Perhaps one day soon they may seek funds to invest in new technology to help them. According to research by SoftBank Robotics, 89% of supply side and 78% of demand side facilities management leaders think that performance-based contracts are positive for the cleaning industry. It foresees that in the near future increasing numbers of companies will use “cobots”, collaborative robots that work alongside cleaning teams and undertake repetitive and time-consuming tasks such as vacuuming. This would free-up staff to focus on other tasks such as the deep cleaning and sanitisation of hard surfaces which is critical in the fight against Covid-19, it says.

Nils van der Zijl, VP sales and marketing at SoftBank Robotics, says: “It’s understandable that in an industry that has experienced significant challenges in delivering successful innovation programmes, there is a certain amount of scepticism and uncertainty when it comes to technology adoption. Facilities management leaders need to ensure they get the advice and support they need, working collaboratively alongside trusted partners to develop the right innovation strategies.”

But in the short term, perhaps it’s about time we extended our appreciation of key workers to cleaners – it could be a matter of life and death, after all.

It’s understandable that in an industry that has experienced significant challenges in delivering successful innovation programmes there is a certain amount of scepticism and uncertainty when it comes to technology adoption” – Nils van der Zijl, SoftBank Robotics

Meg Roberts, creative director at language and behaviour consultancy Schwa, certainly thinks so and suggests we need to think about the psychological balance in employee relationships with cleaners: “As office workers, the teams that clean our offices can seem faceless – in our WeWork, for example, the cleaners come in the dead of night when we’re not around. The only real interaction we have with them are the notes and signs they pin up around the office.

“So if cleaning teams need office workers to change their behaviour, they need these messages to work really hard. One trick they can use is the ‘identifiable victim effect’: people are much more likely to respond to ‘please wash up your own mugs – from Jo and Maria’ than ‘please wash up your own mugs – from building facilities’.”

It’s clear that given the coronavirus’s threat, new thinking needs to be done about the crucial work of cleaners, and fast. Cleaning services can no longer be treated by some businesses as something they can just wash their hands of.

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