Vision of a better future for cleaning operatives

7th of June 2024
Vision of a better future for cleaning operatives

In November 2023 ECJ ran a news story highlighting the findings of a report in the UK about working conditions for cleaning operatives. The year-long investigation by the Centre for Progressive Change found that more than a third of them had worked while unwell because many of them are unable to claim sick pay. In this special report we delve deeper into the detail of the survey that took a close look at working conditions in the sector through the eyes of the operatives themselves.

CLEANING UP THE SECTOR - A Better Future of Work for Cleaners is the title of the report published by the Centre for Progressive Change in the UK following a year-long project. During that time it surveyed and interviewed 500 cleaners across the UK to report on working conditions. The aim was to present the main issues affecting cleaning operatives in the UK and draw on their ideas from those on the ground to build a vision of an alternative, positive future for cleaning work.

In the Listening Campaign the researchers heard from 520 cleaners using online surveys (209 participants); one-to-one interviews (28 participants); house meetings (85 participants); Facebook forums (37 participants); Issues Workshops (53 participants); and imagination events (108 participants).

Approximately 68 per cent of the cleaners in the Listening Campaign as a whole were based in London, while 32 per cent in other parts of the UK. The researchers heard from cleaners in six languages: English, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian, Polish and Bulgarian. Of the survey respondents, 77 per cent answered the survey in Spanish (93 per cent of which were of Latin American heritage); three per cent in Portuguese; eight per cent in Bulgarian; two per cent in Romanian; two per cent in Polish.

Other characteristics of participants:

• Gender identity: 51 per cent female; 48 per cent male; 0 per cent non-binary; one per cent no answer.

• Indirectly employed: 79 per cent

• Unionisation: 59 per cent of Spanish language survey respondents members of a union (the overwhelming majority IWGB); about 23 per cent of the other cleaners who participated in the research were members of a union.

• No contract: nine per cent

• Zero-hours contract: 24 per cent.

Key findings

The key findings of the report are:

• 70 per cent of respondents said excessive workloads were a problem. Participants cited underpayment and negative health impacts as the key negative results of excessive workloads.

• The experiences described by participants in the research demonstrates that working in the cleaning sectors comes with many risks to both the worker’s physical and mental health. Participants regularly used terms such as ‘backbreaking‘, abusive’, ‘inhumane’, ‘painful’ and ‘stressful’ to describe issues such as workloads and shift work.

• Despite this, just 21 per cent of the participants reported being allowed to take sick leave. Unsurprisingly, ‘sick pay’ was the issue raised most frequently by participants in the Listening Campaign.

• 34 per cent of respondents mentioned low pay as a key issue. Many cleaners emphasised that the National Minimum Wage (NMW) is simply not enough to live off, particularly when working volatile shifts, which create significant uncertainty around income. Many other participants mentioned issues of underpayment, wage theft, as well as difficulty utilising the legislative avenues available to challenge employers who refused to pay.

• Overall, 32 per cent of cleaners involved in our research raised issues related to bullying, harassment and discrimination. Asked directly if they had been discriminated against, harassed or assaulted at work, 53 per cent of the survey respondents said they had. Twenty-two per cent of English speakers had experienced discrimination, harassment or assault, while 59 per cent of non-English speakers had experienced these issues.

• Twenty-seven per cent of respondents mentioned short, anti-social and split shifts as a key issue in the cleaning sector.

• Twenty-four per cent of participants in the research were on zero-hour contracts, and 20 per cent mentioned job insecurity as a key concern. These participants emphasised that shift work comes with a host of problems, namely financial insecurity, volatile hours, invisibilisation and negative health impacts. Indirect impacts of volatile working patterns included problems accessing rental accommodation and state welfare.

Improve conditions

Cleaning operatives in the Imagination Campaign and Issues Workshops came up with a number of pragmatic and intuitive proposals for how employers could help to improve working conditions in the sector:

• Employers should raise staff levels. Increasing the number of staff would help to solve problems with both excessive workloads and short, volatile shifts by spreading the work more evenly across a greater number of workers.

• Employers should ensure all cleaners are offered sick pay, regardless of how much they earn, from the first day that they are off sick, and pay sick pay in line with the real Living Wage. If a cleaner is paid less than the real Living Wage then they should be paid sick pay in line with their wages.

• Employers should pay the Real Living Wage. This would help to make sure that cleaners can at the very least afford housing, utilities, food and other basic items.

• Employers should implement regular auditing of contractors, supervisors and line-managers. Regular staff surveys to gather workers’ views and help firms identify problem areas before they become serious.

• Employers and clients should move to a model of daytime cleaning. This would be less disruptive to the worker’s sleep, health and family and social life. It would also mean that cleaning is no longer invisible work, which would have important knock-on effects in terms of reducing bullying and abuse.

Heavy workload

Alongside sick pay, excessive workloads were the most widespread problem identified. Seventy per cent of the survey participants confirmed they had experienced excessive workloads. They were the third most raised issue independent of direct questioning. Having to do heavy physical work under unreasonable time constraints was a particular problem.

Indeed, some described completing the workloads in their contracted hours as an ‘impossible’ job. This hotel cleaner’s comments are typical: “Cleaning a hotel room in 30 minutes with all the standards and tasks they expect of you for each room, it’s impossible.”

Many spoke of the ways in which excessive workloads often meant being paid for less time than they worked for. Respondents repeatedly made clear that excessive workloads contribute significantly to unpaid overtime and associated minimum wage violations.

Unsurprisingly, a major impact of excessive workloads described by participants was the physical health toll. When asked why their workloads were excessive, some cleaners replied by listing the most strenuous aspects of the job, such as vacuuming, using specialist rug cleaning machines, shining floors and mopping. Many others recounted the physical exhaustion and injuries they suffered as a result of undertaking such physically demanding work at excessive speed or for long hours.

Repeated physical strain and stress in the workplace can lead to chronic health problems. Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are extremely common for example. Some described not having time for breaks so were not able to eat properly. Others commented that being treated poorly had negative effects on their mental health and sense of self-worth.

Sick pay

Of all the problems identified by cleaning operatives through the Listening Campaign, lack of sick pay was the most widespread. Across English and Spanish language surveys, 37 per cent of participants mentioned sick pay as an issue they would most like to see campaigning focused on, and was the issue most regularly mentioned independently of direct questioning.

When the issue was specifically prompted, 81 per cent of participants highlighted sick pay as an issue. Of 350 cleaners consulted on the problems they face at work, just 21 per cent reported being allowed to take sick leave. This means they are often attend work when they are not fit to do so.

The UK’s statutory sick pay (SSP), the legal minimum that employers must pay their employees, is a flat rate payment (not-tethered to an individual’s earnings) which currently stands at £109.40 - around 19 per cent of average pay, or just 12 per cent of the average UK household’s weekly expenditure.

This represents among the lowest rates in Europe. In countries such as Germany, Sweden, Belgium and Spain, sick pay amounts to 100 per cent, 93 per cent, 64 per cent and 42 per cent of average pay respectively. UK SSP also has one of the shortest durations of payment in Europe; it can be paid for only a 28-week period. In the Netherlands, which has the one of the most generous SSP in terms of duration, workers receive 70 per cent of their pay for up to two years.

Low pay

Pay was one of the most important issues raised in the Listening Campaign, with 34 per cent of respondents mentioning it as a key issue. Pay was also the issue raised most frequently by cleaners independent of being directly questioned.

A number of issues surrounding low pay were raised: The National Minimum Wage (NMW) being insufficient; uncompensated additional hours ; wage theft and wage default; refusal to pay holiday and sick pay; substituting a wage with unsatisfactory on-the-job benefits; being ineligible for the NMW; short, anti-social shifts; difficulty challenging employers.

Low pay is a growing problem in the UK labour market, with the cost of living crisis forcing households to spend more of their income on food and energy, meaning that wages are in real terms significantly lower than they were only a few years ago. At first glance, wages for low-paid workers do appear to be rising and there has been a rapid surge in numbers receiving the National Minimum Wage (NMW) and National Living Wage (NLW). While the report welcomes this growth, it also points out the cost of living crisis, when inflation is soaring, real wages are declining and workers are increasingly unable to meet their daily needs.


Participants in the Listening Campaign also frequently raised problems associated with the shift-based nature of commercial cleaning work. There are three principal, interrelated ways in which current shift structures are affecting the workforce. Firstly, they are short - often only a few hours long. They are anti-social, falling at inconvenient times of the day, for example late at night and early in the morning. And often they are split - intersected by long periods of ‘non-work’ time, for example a brief morning shift is followed by a long wait until an additional night shift.

Work patterns like this give rise to many other challenges such as mental and physical health problems, additional transport costs, difficulty fulfilling caring responsibilities, access to housing, disrupted sleep routines, second-class status in the workplace.

• The entire report is now available to download:


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