The real Living Wage and the cleaning industry: from invisible workforce to key workers

7th of October 2021 Article by Sebastian Bachelier
The real Living Wage and the cleaning industry: from invisible workforce to key workers

Sebastian Bachelier, programme manager at Living Wage Foundation and project manager at Recognised Service Providers, tells us cleaning remains one of the lowest-paid sectors in Europe. He encourages all businesses to do the right thing for their workforce and pay the Living Wage.

The Living Wage movement in the UK - this year celebrating its 20th anniversary at over 8,000 Employers strong - was built by cleaners. The first Living Wage Employers were banks, whose cleaners, although working in the same offices, lived in completely different worlds due to low pay. At the forefront of the movement since the beginning, it's time they're paid their due.

Since its inception, the Living Wage movement has returned over £1.53 billion to the pockets of over 280,000 workers. Despite their foundational role in our story, most cleaners are still under-paid; almost 75% earn below the real Living Wage. The real Living Wage (not to be confused with the UK Government's Legal Minimum National Living Wage), is a voluntary rate of pay calculated according to the real cost of living; currently at £10.85 per hour in London and £9.50 for the rest of the UK.

Earning below the real Living Wage often leads to in-work poverty, and can force workers to take on multiple jobs, just to make ends meet. Unfortunately, this impact has fallen disproportionately upon women and racialised communities.

That's why paying the real Living Wage is the right thing to do. As well as being good for workers, it's good for businesses too. Over time, we've documented the transformational capacity of the Living Wage. Seventy-five per cent of accredited employers enjoy an improved reputation post-accreditation, and 60 per cent said they received higher quality applicants for jobs. At Sodexo UK - one of the major employers in the services industry - where the real Living Wage is paid on client contracts, retention rates have greatly improved, boosting the firm's long-term resilience and reducing turnover costs.

For cleaners like Rukky at Clean For Good, the extra income has allowed her to spend more time with her family instead of having to take up every shift available to make ends meet. Benefits of the real Living Wage are felt throughout industries, families, and society itself.

The pandemic highlighted the essential role that cleaners play in our society. Pre-pandemic, they were referred to as the ‘invisible workforce', because they operated out of the limelight. With hygiene and cleanliness brought to the forefront of our collective consciousness, cleaners were rightly recognised as ‘key workers'. It follows, then, that their work should be compensated fairly - by being paid the real Living Wage.

Our Living Wage accreditations are designed to improve the quality of workers' lives, by making employment more financially secure and rewarding. Accredited Living Wage Employers must pay all directly employed staff and third party contracted staff the real Living Wage.

We do, however, acknowledge that many businesses that supply staff on a contracted basis are unable to become Living Wage Employers without their clients' support. That's why we created the Recognised Service Provider programme, to support providers on their journey to becoming Living Wage Employers. Recognised Service Providers pay all directly employed members of staff, not tied to client contracts, the real Living Wage and commit to offering a real Living Wage bid, alongside a market rate bid, for every future quote/tender for contracted work.

This ensures the Living Wage is always an option in traditionally low-paid work and gives providers an opportunity to champion it, one contract at a time.

Paying the real Living Wage is an important first step towards a world which is free from in-work poverty, but there's more that needs to be done if we are to arrive there. Insecurity of working hours is currently experienced by 6.6 million UK workers, of which, 56 per cent are paid below the real Living Wage.

In response to this, we developed our Living Hours accreditation programme: where alongside paying the real Living Wage, organisations provide all directly employed and third-party contracted staff guaranteed working hours and decent notice periods of shifts - to be taken up by employers who already pay the real Living Wage. With these programmes, we are aiming to create additional support for low-paid workers, to supplement our primary Living Wage accreditation.

Cleaning remains one of the lowest-paid sectors across the continent. It's time this changed. We encourage businesses across Europe to do right by their workforce. It's time to pay a real Living Wage.

• Sebastian Bachelier, programme manager and project lead for the Recognised Service Providers, Living Wage Foundation, will lead a session at The Cleaning Show titled ‘From invisible workforce to key workers: why the real Living Wage matters now more than ever'. Taking place on Tuesday November 2 at 12:00 and joined by Charlie Mowat, founder and CEO at The Clean Space, the session will explore the growth in demand for front line workers in cleaning, catering and security, and how now could be the perfect time to champion the real Living Wage. For more information on The Cleaning Show and to register to attend, visit:

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