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It mostly covers my work as UNISON Scotland's Head of Policy and Public Affairs although views are my own. For full coverage of UNISON Scotland's policy and campaigns please visit our web site. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Cleaners are Worth It

Cleaners are the neglected workers that most of us take for granted. They often begin their shift before or after most of us, but their job is vital to a healthy workplace and in some settings, critical to preventing the spread of infection.

UNISON Scotland has been surveying cleaning staff in areas where we organise to get a picture of how they are faring in the era of cuts and austerity. The report we published, 'Dishing the Dirt' paints a picture of a workforce largely, but far from exclusively, female, mostly part time, and trying simultaneously to deal with an increase workload and wages that don’t go as far as they used to.

A particular impact of the austerity cuts is that standards of cleanliness are declining. Across a range of environments there are complaints of either a lack of cleaning material or of switching to cheaper, less effective cleaning materials. As one NHS cleaner put it:

“Some of our cleaning products have stopped being supplied due to cut backs. We are told to use cold water or hot water with no product added. Hoovers fall apart and are held together with tape.” 

Another concern was work intensification. This usually takes the form of increasing the area to be cleaned without any expansion of working time. The result is that areas are not cleaned to either the standards that cleaners are happy with or that the public should be able to expect. As one school cleaner put it:

“Not enough time for size of area to clean. Was six hours per day between two people, now only me on three hours per day. Raised concerns to supervisor but told just to use initiative and clean what looks dirty. Not constructive answer and adds pressure to daily tasks. I never feel area is clean enough for purpose because of lack of hours”

Cleaners in the public sector have seen their wages cut in real terms by at least 10% due to government pay policy. Even with the welcome application of the Scottish Living Wage, many cleaners have real earnings less than they were a few years ago. The survey shows that cleaners are finding it harder to make ends meet and optimism about the future is in scarce supply. Years of declining living standards have impacted on morale. As a university cleaner put it:

“It has got worse in past three years. The wages don’t change but the cost
of living just seems to go up and up. How can people live healthily when the healthy foods cost so much and the prices keep going up.” 

A particular concern is that nearly one in five cleaners had been in a pensions scheme, but had opted because they couldn’t afford the contributions. This will lead to greater inequality in the long term and higher levels of pensioner poverty.

Employers are not even getting the soft skills right, with many cleaners reporting that they feel under valued. As a college cleaner put it:

“Not very often we get any positive feedback. Doesn’t seem to matter how hard you work, it’s never enough. Only really get comments if something’s wrong.” 


This survey should be a wake up call for employers who are ignoring their hidden workforce. Everyone should be concerned about the impact on hygiene and infection control. Cleaners matter – not just because they have as much right to dignity and respect in the workforce as any manager or Chief Executive. But because the work they do is vital in every respect. This should be recognised, by both ensuring that they are given the environment to do their job properly but also in recognising its value where it is most obvious – in their pay packets. Cleaners are Worth It. 




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