Challenging times ahead for the Netherlands

1st of May 2012

In the second of our special country focus reports, ECJ takes a look at the cleaning sector of the Netherlands. With the help of industry experts we focus on the contract cleaning sector, training and the distribution of supplies.

The contract cleaning sector in the Netherlands is currently worth 4.3 billion euros and there are almost 8,000 cleaning companies in the country, including window cleaning. The industry employs 150,000 people -  32 per cent of them male and 68 per cent female. Foreign workers account for 46 per cent of the workforce.

In terms of the age profile of workers, there is a fairly even spread: 15-24 years 16 per cent; ?25-34 years 16 per cent; ?35-44 years 30 per cent; ?45-54 years 24 per cent; ?55-65 years 13 per cent.

The percentage of contracted-out work is high at 85 per cent, and companies dominating the market include Asito, CSU, Facilicom and Vebego. However the picture in the Netherlands is not currently a positive one, with figures from sector association OSB showing a decline of 1.1 per cent in 2011.

Dutch cleaning publication Service Management carries out an annual contract cleaning industry survey by distributing a questionnaire to 500 companies. Its report is also based on figures from the Central Bureau of Statistics and the Dutch bank ING.

Its chief editor Ronald Bruins spoke to ECJ about some of the survey’s findings. “The Dutch economy is not in a healthy state and many client companies are looking to cut costs in terms of office space,” he explained. “Flexible working and fewer staff mean there is generally less office space needed, and that in turn means less cleaning. Cleaning companies generally saw a mere 1.8 per cent price rise in the last year, which is not in line with inflation.”

Bruins continued: “Cleaning companies are being asked to cut services and cut their staff numbers.” Melanie Klerx at OSB said that from the clients’ point of view buying cleaning services is “like buying a commodity. The margins for cleaning in the Netherlands are very low at around five per cent.”

“Our survey findings suggest that 22 per cent of cleaning companies in the Netherlands went bankrupt in 2011,” revealed Bruins, “and far fewer businesses than usual agreed to participate in our survey. This demonstrates the general unwillingness to share revenues and other sensitive information – a sign of the difficult times.”

On the positive side, while general building cleaning is under severe pressure, specialist cleaning is still doing well and the margins are holding up, said Bruins. “And generally cleaning companies are forming more partnerships, or going through mergers in order to become larger. There is also more daytime cleaning because there are savings to be made from adopting this method, with the added benefit that it makes the cleaner more visible.”

The Dutch cleaning industry – as well documented in the press – has also seen the longest period of industrial action since 1933. Cleaners have been holding strikes over the last couple of years through the FNV trades union. Melanie Klerx at OSB explained that the latest strike started on January 1 this year. “A small group of cleaners, around 600, are still refusing to work,” she said.

“The employers have offered over five per cent, with the cleaners getting a four per cent wage rise over two years. We are also working on the issue of respect and education.”

OSB negotiates with two trades unions: FNV and CNV. The strikes are being organised by FNV, which Ronald Bruins described as being extremely proactive. “Some very bold actions have been taken, with buildings being occupied by cleaners on several occasions.” Despite negotiations, no end to the strike action is in sight yet.

Positive action

So how does the general public feel about the striking cleaners? Bruins replied: “During the last strike of 2010, the general public was mostly supportive of the cleaners. Now, however, they feel the cleaners may be asking for too much in these recessionary times. Sympathy is rapidly drying up and some now fear this industrial action may damage the reputation of the industry if it continues.”

In the face of this unrest, however, the industry has taken positive action by introducing the Code of Responsible Market Conduct in 2011. Drawn up by a number of industry organisations, this document is an invitation to the industry to improve its conduct in the context of social responsibility. While not being compulsory it invites all parties to work towards achieving more professional market competition, improvement of working conditions and enhancing the quality of production and work. That includes clients, contractors and staff.

Bruins explained: “This code is now being taken seriously by companies and it’s working.” Klerx added: “In more and more tenders clients are asking to work with the code.”

Employee training is one of the key components of a successful cleaning sector and this is handled by the organization SVS. ECJ spoke to its director, Charles Scholte. “In principle all new employees in the cleaning industry have to be trained and certified,” he explained. “In the Netherlands about 150,000 people work in the cleaning and window cleaning industry, with around 10,000 employees being trained annually. Up to now SVS has trained and certified around 110,000 cleaners.”

Scholte explained the structure of the training programmes in the Netherlands. “The cleaning and window cleaning industry has its own Collective Labour Agreement (CLA). Since both employers and employees attach importance to training, this is being stimulated in the CLA. The joint highest body in the sector, de Raad voor de Arbeidsverhoudingen in de Schoonmaakbranche (RAS) (Council for the labour relations in the cleaning industry) has formulated final terms for all training of employees falling under the operation of the CLA.”

From 1977 until 2009 SVS was the only training institute in the cleaning industry. Since 2009, other organisations have been officially permitted to offer some programmes – such as office, hotel and private house cleaning. So now the Dutch training institutes are SVS, Advisionair, Alpheios, Carling Opleidingen, Opleiding Facilitaire Diensten (OFD) and Studieplan Nederland.

In recent years an intermediate vocational qualification called an mbo-diploma for the cleaning and window cleaning industry has become established. Paid for by the government or the cleaning company itself, this involves a combination of learning and work experience. When the cleaning company pays, it receives compensation for the cost in the form of a reduction in the payment of premiums (WVA subsidy) for that particular employee.

“Employers see training as an important means to further professionalise the industry,” explained Scholte. “It is because of this, that training is a part of the CLA. The CLA applies to all cleaning companies in the Netherlands. And because in the CLA it is also arranged that all employers have to set aside a part of their total wage bill, there are financial resources available to offer employers training compensation for every employee that graduates.”

He acknowledged, however, that the economic climate is affecting training to some degree. “Naturally, employers are conscious of their costs in the current economic situation. They don’t only keep an eye on actual training costs, but also on the costs of the lost hours that result when they send employees for training. But training is nothing less than investing in people.”

How has Scholte seen training change over the last few years? “The importance of training is being acknowledged increasingly. More and more employees are being trained. In the last couple of years  there has been a visible movement from technical aspects of training to the more communicative and hospitality aspects.”

Growth in new education methods

He added: “Cleaners are becoming more visible, partly due to an increase of cleaning during the day. We also see a combination of facility tasks, which develops the need for broader employee training.

“Due to the pressure on training costs and the expense of lost hours, the demand for shorter and more practical training is also on the rise. More training takes place on the job and we are also witnessing growth in the new methods of education – distance learning and e-learning for example,” concluded Scholte.

ECJ also spoke to Simon van Dijk of Exclusiva, a major distributor of cleaning supplies in the Netherlands, about how products are purchased and distributed. “There are many distributors in the Netherlands,” he said, “many of them are small and working on a purely regional basis. The large national distributors dominate the market, however.” He estimates the market at being worth between 150 and 200 million euros a year.

The large distributors have significant buying power, van Dijk explained. “Those companies dealing with the A-brands in the cleaning industry are responsible for promoting and introducing new products. Those A-brand manufacturers need the large distributors because they offer extra service and logistical benefits. The added value from the distributor is a wide range of brands and products – and a strong relationship with the end user.”

As in many other countries, cleaning products distributors are becoming increasingly involved in other industries as well. “This is increasingly important,” said van Dijk, “because there is tremendous price pressure on margins. Broadening our business to other sectors is a logical step – industries like laundry, food hygiene, industry, etc.”

So while the Dutch cleaning sector is facing the same challenging times as that in most European countries, there are organisations actively working to raise standards, and the profile of the industry in general. As Melanie Klerx of OSB concluded: “The image of the sector requires a great deal of attention in the coming years. Many people in the Netherlands, for example, think cleaners earn a bad wage when in fact our industry pays almost 120 per cent above the minimum.

“The number of employees is also an issue – the expectation is that in the future there will not be enough people to work in the industry.”


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