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Cleaning staff feel “invisible”, says EHRC report

11 August 2014

A study by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) reveals that some employers in the commercial cleaning industry are failing to meet their responsibilities to their staff on pay, holiday or sick leave or dealing with their concerns. 


Many cleaners feel that their employer, client firms and the public do not treat them with the dignity and respect everyone should expect, according to the findings.

The non-domestic cleaning workforce is largely made up of women, migrants and older workers.  Although the commission found many examples of good practice in employment and working conditions, many cleaners spoke of being “invisible“,  the “lowest of the low“, being spoken to rudely and treated badly compared with other employees.

Significant numbers of cleaners said they received no support when they complained of being harassed or bullied, and some said they were punished with extra work or worse duties for raising concerns.  

Others said they were afraid to report problems for fear of losing their jobs, and a few workers said they were threatened with dismissal when they told their employer they were pregnant.

Despite the £8 billion contribution the cleaning industry makes to the British economy each year, large numbers of cleaners reported problems with under-payment or non-payment of wages. This can drive them into poverty and indebtedness. The report identified examples of workers being sacked for complaining about not being paid in full and on time.

The industry has been the subject of extensive outsourcing since the 1970s and price competition has led to a general downward pressure on wages and working conditions, says the commission.

It found that longer contracts created a more positive relationship between the client and the cleaning firm, gave greater job stability to cleaners and encouraged investment in workforce development.

Migrant workers’ lack of awareness of employment rights and poor language skills left them particularly vulnerable to mistreatment. 

Some of the migrant workers interviewed had not been given an employment contract; others did not have their contracts adequately explained to them. A few migrants said employers used language barriers to avoid paying them in full.


In some cases employers told workers that they were not entitled to paid holiday or sick leave, although they were permanent workers with legal entitlements. Some felt pressured into going into work when they were ill and others were expected to arrange their own cover.

Some cleaners said they had nowhere to take a break as some clients did not provide for this and they were denied access to staff canteens; some workers had to eat their meals in cupboards full of mops, buckets and cleaning chemicals.

The commission, which promotes and enforces the laws that protect everyone’s right to be treated with fairness, dignity and respect, makes a number or recommendations for the industry. 

These include encouraging clients to commission cleaning services at living wage rates, as a matter of good practice. It also wants them to consider what action they can take to ensure cleaners are treated with the same dignity and respect as their own workforce and customers.

The commission is now setting up a taskforce, chaired by EHRC deputy chair Caroline Waters, to look at issues raised by the report, identify examples of good practice and ways of taking these forward.

Waters said: “Fairness, dignity and respect are values we all share. Yet the commission uncovered some disturbing evidence of the absence of these in the treatment of many cleaning workers by supervisors, clients and the public. Cleaners are largely invisible, despite the cleaning workforce numbering nearly half a million people.

“Our evidence showed that, while many workers are treated well, enjoy their job and have their rights upheld, a significant number do not.  Cleaners do physically hard work and often take great pride in their jobs, but many felt that they were not appreciated or afforded the dignity and respect shown to others in the workplace.

“They may be bullied by supervisors, have problems with there pay, and have excessive workloads. This can often be linked to a focus on reducing costs at the expense of good practice in employment and contracting.

“I am looking forward to working with the cleaning firms, union representatives, clients, trade bodies and government organisations that make up this year-long taskforce. Together, I believe we will identify key actions to improve practices across the sector and ensure that everyone understands their role in ensuring workers are treated with dignity and respect.”

Gareth Tancred, chief executive at BIFM, said: "These findings present real concerns and should reinforce to UK businesses the importance of equal opportunities and fair treatment for all employees.

"Initiatives such as Living Wage, which BIFM supports, has led to great progress being made in raising awareness of low pay issues, and we welcome the recommendations outlined by the EHRC. We must however have a firm commitment from businesses to review their contracts and policies and make amends where necessary if we are to eradicate bad practice in both the treatment and pay of the cleaning workforce in this country."

Guy Stallard, head of facilities at KMPG, explained that third party staff should be 'treated with the same dignity' as employees, and that 'loyalty and professionalism' are key.

Stallard is a strong advocate of improving working conditions through implementing the Living Wage scheme, calculated according to the basic cost of living in the UK.

He said: “By paying a fair, living wage, organisations are more likely to cut staff costs, rather than raise them because it improves retention and reduces staff churn. It’s easy to assume that low wages equal higher profits, but the expense incurred through attrition rates, reduced productivity and low morale suggest otherwise.

“The paying public are increasingly aware that paying a living wage can make a real difference, and many are suggesting they will change their purchasing habits if organisations fail to clean up their act. Today’s report urges businesses to support the Living Wage.
It’s a message that should be heeded because organisations have a duty of care to their staff as well as a commercial obligation to all their stakeholders ensuring that everything possible is being done to deliver high performance at the lowest possible cost."

Sarah Bentley, chief executive of The Building Futures Group, said: “The Building Futures Group plans to work with trade unions and employers to run a dignity and awareness of cleaning operatives campaign across the UK. The campaign aims to inform cleaning operatives of their rights, and work with employers to ensure that there is an understanding of the importance of treating employees inclusively and with dignity.

She added: “We hope that by providing practical interventions to raise standards and awareness of this essential service we can help to improve conditions for those cleaning operatives who are not being treated with dignity and respect in the workplace. As a result we are confident that there will be a healthy ROI and boost to the sector’s reputation as an industry that can offer fair and fruitful career opportunities for all.”