Denmark's invisible cleaners

26th of June 2013
Denmark's invisible cleaners

ECJ Scandinavian correspondent, Petra Sjouwerman examines the results of a recent Danish research project amongst immigrant cleaners.

Improvement of the psychosocial working environment among immigrants and migrant workers in cleaning jobs is possible, according to Danish researchers from the National Research Centre for the Working Environment (NRCWE) in Copenhagen. This is the result of a small-scale research project in a school not far from the Danish capital.

The Danish researchers carried out a small project amongst 14 cleaners with different ethnic backgrounds, who work at a primary school with pupils from six to 16 year years.

Before the start of the research project, the participating cleaners expressed that they experienced strained social relationships with their colleagues, poor communication combined with a lack of social recognition and the feeling of being ’invisible’ at work.

In Denmark cleaners are mainly women from established immigrant communities, but the number of labour migrants from new EU countries like Bulgaria and Romania is rapidly increasing. Previous studies have drawn attention to the low position of immigrants in the cleaning industry and their higher risk of injury at work.

The researchers offered the cleaners two courses. A work-related Danish course, targeted to immigrants and a course in cleaning techniques. Furthermore, as cleaners often work alone, collaboration between colleagues was promoted through socialising and team building. To make the cleaners more visible in the school, pictures and names of the operatives involved were put up in each classroom.

The Danish researchers distributed cameras to the participating cleaners, who were asked to make a photo diary of their working day. In addition the researchers interviewed the cleaners and observed them in their daily activities, their cooperation and communication with each other and with the teachers and pupils.

The three interventions – Danish language course, cleaning techniques course and focus on collaboration – clearly improved the relationship between the cleaners. It appeared that the social division in the team was based on ethnicity and a lack of inclusion of cleaners from the new EU countries.

According to the researchers it is exactly that social division between the cleaners, combined with their marginal position in the workplace, that amplifies their experience of a poor psychosocial working environment. That is why it is important to focus on ameliorating social relationships in the workplace, according to the researchers.

This interesting research project is part of a larger, state financed initiative on immigrants working in the cleaning industry, and particularly their higher risk of work injuries compared to their Danish colleagues. It has appeared difficult to incorporate new preventive measures in the entire team, because cleaners work alone or in small groups. Language difficulties can also influence communication about risk management and about how to prevent accidents.

According to the NRCWE cleaners in general have an increased risk of attrition and illnesses and a higher incidence of hospital treatments for musculoskeletal and cardiovascular disorders than most other occupational groups.

Furthermore, workers in the cleaning industry retire earlier from the labour market than employees in other industries.


Our Partners

  • ISSA Interclean
  • EFCI
  • EU-nited