Working lives of cleaners offer a throwback to Victorian Britain

UNISON is participating in a nationwide project conducted by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, in a bid to improve the working lives of cleaners.

This week, a focus group from the union involving more than a dozen NHS cleaners revelead a number of problems that need to be addressed.

Chief among them is the appalling treatment of cleaners by their own co-workers, who regard these essential NHS employees as third-class citizens.

UNISON national officer for health Siân Rabi-Laleh commented: “Some of the things described to us were shocking and more akin to Victorian Britain than today.

“Cleaners perform an absolutely vital function in the NHS – and the public realises this – but their pay does not reflect their importance.

“This project is about learning what it is like to work in this sector, and making some changes.”

The commission’s aim is to raise awareness of human rights and equality issues throughout the cleaning industry. After hearing evidence from cleaning staff, employers and users, it will publish its key findings in the spring. A task force will then take its recommendations forward.

The project follows a similar, successful exercise aimed at the meat and poultry processing sector, which revealed widespread mistreatment and exploitation of migrant workers and agency staff. The commission worked with the government, supermarkets, regulators and unions to introduce improvements.

The cleaners taking party in UNISON’s focus group were from most English regions, plus Wales.

Among the problems they described were:

  • cleaners are treated as inferior by other staff, especially middle managers and staff new to the NHS;
  • the EU working time directive is used to deny cleaners their breaks;
  • poor health and safety practice, especially where dangerous chemicals are concerned. Problem substances are withdrawn from use by senior staff, while cleaners must continue to use them;
  • training for specific duties tends to be inadequate;
  • complaints usually fall on deaf ears, making whistleblowing impossible;
  • there is pressure to go into work when sick;           
  • poor access to computer systems means cleaners are denied key information, for example regarding job opportunities;
  • nepotism.

While the participants were permanent staff, they all identified the poor treatment of agency cleaners.

Their demands included:

  • more respect;
  • better training;
  • an enforced living wage;
  • bank staff to be treated in the same way as permanent staff;
  • better access to computers.

UNISON will make its formal response to the commission by the end of the month, addressing not just NHS cleaners, but those providing domestic services across the public services and with private companies.

But Ms Rabi-Laleh said that the union itself would be addressing the problems that had been raised.

“The focus group has given us a lot of food for thought. There are issues here that we as a union are determined to sink our teeth into,” she added.

Equality and Human Rights Commission

UNISON living wage campaign

UNISON in healthcare