Cleaners - the invisible workforce?

8th of April 2019
Cleaners - the invisible workforce?

A TV drama series on UK television this winter took the premise that cleaners were so “invisible” that they could carry out clever crimes without being suspected. Ann Laffeaty finds out how “invisible” our cleaners actually are – and what companies are doing to make their staff feel more valued.

A six-part TV drama aired on UK television this winter has been the source of much social media attention. Starring actress Sheridan Smith as an office cleaner, the plot of Cleaning Up hinged on a specific premise regarding the industry: that cleaning staff are such an invisible workforce they could carry out crimes without being suspected.

Sheridan Smith’s character exploited this situation in the drama to eavesdrop on a City trader and try her hand at insider trading. Writer Mark Marlow claims he came up with the idea while watching the 1987 film Wall Street in which actor Charlie Sheen’s character was tasked with finding out some inside information for Michael Douglas’ character. While Sheen rifled through the on-screen filing cabinets, Marlow spotted an “extra” playing a cleaner in the background who could easily have observed Sheen’s actions. Yet the background character remained unnoticed.

This issue has been much analysed in recent years. A paper entitled: “They really don’t want to see us” was published last year in the Journal of Vocational Behaviour, for example. The authors questioned nearly 200 facility cleaners to find out how cleaners experienced invisibility, what it felt like and why they felt they were rendered invisible. Respondents attributed the phenomenon to various factors including class issues, customer absentmindedness and the nature of the work they carried out. And their reactions ranged from anger, resignation and ambivalence to relief in some cases.

The UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission has also addressed the issue in its paper entitled The Invisible Workforce: Practices in the Cleaning Sector. The paper highlights the vital service carried out by staff to ensure our workplaces, hospitals, schools, transport and public spaces are kept clean. But it also remarks that the cleaner’s work often goes unnoticed and unappreciated and that many cleaners are treated with a lack of dignity and respect.

Some claim they are seldom acknowledged by the people who work in the offices they clean. They are rarely addressed by name and those who do speak to them hardly ever say “please” or “thank you”. And cleaners add that they are often made to feel “the lowest of the low”.

But is this a true reflection of the industry today? How many cleaners actually feel “invisible” and how does this impact on their working lives? And what are employers doing to address the situation?
Operations director at Julius Rutherfoord & Co Caroline Hutchins admits some cleaners are indeed underpaid, undertrained and undervalued. “However, we are committed to being part of the movement for change – for the benefit of the cleaning operatives as well as for our clients,” she said.

“We provide continuous training programmes plus reward and recognition schemes, and we pay above the National Living Wage which means we can recruit passionate staff who will be with us for the long term. It’s no accident that our employee retention rates are more than three times the industry average.

“We also reward employees through our JR&Co Stars awards in which clients and colleagues are invited to nominate anyone who has delivered excellent customer service and who has gone above and beyond the call of duty.”

Managing director of Facilicom UK Jan-Hein Hemke agrees that cleaners can sometimes find themselves to be part of an invisible workforce. “They provide a vital role in ensuring our workplaces, hospitals, schools, transport and public spaces are clean and pleasant to use - yet often this key service goes unnoticed and unappreciated,” he said.

In 2017 Facilicom became a member of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission’s Cleaning Taskforce, an industry-led action group which aimed to increase visibility and improve working conditions for cleaners. “Together we strived to make things better for all our colleagues across the industry and ensure cleaning teams received the respect and admiration they deserve,” he said.

Besides providing basic cleaning instruction, Facilicom also trains all its staff in “Hostmanship” -the art of making people feel welcome. “This not only helps to build their confidence when communicating and engaging with their peers, clients and customers, it also allows us to add value for our clients,” said Hemke.

“By developing and honing colleagues’ interpersonal skills we can introduce a caring but professional approach to our work. Colleagues are more motivated and committed to their tasks and have a better understanding of their clients’ needs.”

Invisibility is not a problem for Insider Facility Services according to marketing and purchasing manager Thor Nielsen. “In our annual survey we give cleaners the opportunity to air their opinions, and in our most recent study I cannot recall any responses indicating that anyone felt invisible or depressed,” he said. “The main issues were around wanting more work, more money and more social activities.”

He says the company provides its cleaners with a high level of support from their designated leader along with excellent training opportunities from day one. Insider Facility Services runs an internal educational programme – InsiderSkolen – which takes the form of a year-long course and all cleaners receive a raise in salary after completing it. 

“InsiderSkolen also provides social benefits since it enables cleaners to meet up with colleagues they would not usually see during working hours,” said Nielsen. “And we also offer local social events such as summer and Christmas parties.”

The company has developed an app called Kontroll Inside Active in a bid to empower and reward its cleaners. “This encourages them to come forward with ideas, cleaning tips and other suggestions and these are all sent straight to HQ,” said Nielsen. “The app also has a sales tip function, and any cleaner who comes up with a lead that results in an offer to a potential customer receives a financial reward.”

Director of the European Cleaning and Facility Services Industry (EFCI) Isabel Yglesias says a cleaner’s invisibility or otherwise depends largely on the personal attitude of the end-user and on the cleaner’s schedule.

“Night-time cleaning is still common and when this occurs it means cleaners are not seeing the people for whom they clean and vice versa,” she said. “The EFCI strongly supports campaigns that provide more visibility to the cleaning sector,” she said. “We continually work with unions on the issue of daytime cleaning and we have highlighted the valorisation of the sector as a priority in our work strategy. And we plan for further campaigns in the future.”

So if cleaners are actually “invisible” to many of us, does it make it easier for them to carry out dishonest activities at work? And do cleaning and facilities companies need to put measures in place to prevent any transgressions?

Julius Rutherfoord uses airport-style passport scanning systems to identify any illegal workers during the recruitment process. “Once a staff member has been employed we use biometric time and attendance systems whereby a person’s identification can be verified through their fingerprint or iris scan,” said Hutchins.

Thor Nielsen says in the 12 years he has worked at Insider Facility Services he can only recall one incident of a cleaner being dishonest. “There are some customers with whom we have signed confidentiality agreements, and the cleaners who work in these environments receive extra support,” he said. “These types of customers usually do have their own heavy security.”

Facilicom vets its cleaners thoroughly and has a higher-than-average ratio of managers to cleaning operatives, says Jan-Hein Hemke. “This helps with safety and security and ensures that we only employ honest staff,” he said.

“Cleaners are often the first - and the easiest - of workers to blame when something goes missing but they are rarely the culprit.”


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