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Pay issues, harassment and safety risks blight cleaning sector

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Issues with pay, dangerous working conditions and sexual harassment are ‘endemic’ in the cleaning sector, and organisations – especially client companies – should use their position of power to intervene where they believe workers are being poorly treated, a report suggests.

Sixty-one per cent of cleaners polled by Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX) experienced issues with pay, including not being paid for all hours worked (31%); not being paid at all (15%); not receiving holiday pay (12%); being paid a lower rate than initially promised (10%) and being paid less than the minimum wage (6%).

“Dangerous” working conditions were experienced by 60% of cleaning staff, including 38% who were asked to work without proper equipment and 34% not provided with personal protective gear.

One third experienced sexual harassment, including sexualised comments (15%); pressure to go on dates (12%); unwelcome sexual advances (9%); and groping and unwanted touching (9%).

“The cleaning workforce is an invisible yet essential security net on which we, as a society, rely on…Yet, as the limited number of studies available on this sector show, labour abuse is widespread and endemic to the sector,” the report says.

“While it is clear that much needs to be done – and urgently – to improve the situation of workers in cleaning, it is also crucial that the solutions taken forward are informed by those most affected by them, i.e. cleaners themselves.

“Workers have a wealth of knowledge and intelligence about the factors contributing to and driving labour exploitation in the cleaning sector, and we hope that by bringing this knowledge to the attention of policy makers we will start to see meaningful change on the ground.”

Other issues reported by the 99 cleaners who took part in the study – of whom 93% were migrant workers – included the inability to take time off sick due to lack of access to sick pay (47%) and fear of losing work (20%); and experiencing health issues related to their job (86%).

One focus group participant told researchers: “I showed a supervisor that I had skin irritation and wounds from using a specific type of bleach, the supervisor retorted by making a general statement about Romanians being ‘stupid’… I even showed a doctor’s note saying I was allergic to the type of bleach contained within this product, but they just ignored it.”

I showed a supervisor that I had skin irritation and wounds from using a specific type of bleach, the supervisor retorted by making a general statement about Romanians being ‘stupid’” – anonymous cleaner

A community organisation said many staff were not being given eye protection or gloves and many had developed allergies to the chemicals in the cleaning products they were required to use.

“These products are in touch with their skin, so imagine!… The hoover cables, people falling down staircases – broken legs, broken arms so they can’t work, but don’t meet the eligibility criteria for sick pay,” the organisation told researchers.

FLEX identified a number of factors that increased the likelihood of cleaners experiencing these issues, including:

  • Outsourcing
  • Employment status – those classed as “workers” have fewer rights as employees
  • The absence of proactive inspections of labour standards
  • Discrimination – workers being placed “back of house” or asked to do certain types of work because of their ethnicity, race or nationality
  • Immigration status
  • Language barriers and knowledge of rights – those with a good level of English are more likely to know their rights and where to get help if they feel exploited
  • Unionisation – trade union members are better able to fight for fair pay and terms and conditions than non-unionised staff.

The report says both the government and organisations, including client companies whose cleaners are outsourced, have a role to play in improving working conditions for cleaners.

“For example, the most effective responses to workplace sexual harassment documented by this research came from client companies using their position of power in the supply chain to intervene in cases of harassment experienced by outsourced workers,” it says.

“Similar steps could be taken to push for better wages, sick pay policies and the recognition of trade unions, or by bringing workers back in-house.

“Cleaning companies wanting to address the downward pressure that competing for cleaning contracts creates could advocate for the introduction of new regulation to level the playing field, such as joint and several liability legislation.”

It recommends that the government proactively enforces labour standards, especially those related to pay, sexual harassment and other health and safety matters; ensures access to adequate sick pay; addresses the vulnerabilities created by immigration policies and employment status; and introduces regulations to limit the negative impacts of outsourcing on workers.

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