An unloved industry

15th of September 2010

The UK correspondent for ECJ explains how the cleaning sector is a social and economic barometer.

It has often been said the cleaning industry is one of the nation’s economic barometers. This is based partly on the fact that when times are hard a policy of 'make do and mend' applies with more spent on spare parts than capital equipment, though that is not unique to the cleaning industry.

But it is much more than that. Without apparently realising it, the industry is a barometer of social change and a key component of immigration and unemployment issues. “The poor” said Queen Victoria, “are always with us.” She might well have said it about the cleaners. The fact is cleaners are bottom of the social ladder and have been there for a long time. It is true in the Edwardian era and earlier being in domestic service was regarded as a respectable employment although woe betide the titled offspring who became enamoured of the backstairs parlour maid.

Two world wars and the loss of imperial status destroyed domestic service as an employment opportunity. Gradually cleaning became an industry, or so it believed, and worthy to be considered as important especially by those working in it. Outside it remained unloved and generally perceived as unwashed.

Efforts have been made to raise the status of the cleaner and the cleaning industry
notably by the British Institute of Cleaning Science which celebrates 50 years in existence next year and latterly by the British Cleaning Council. Have they succeeded?

Two very recent examples show where the public stands. First a limerick from the World Cup from a national newspaper: Diego did coach Argentina, despite a drugs misdemeanour, he had the hand of God, but most of his squad, thought he looked a bit like the cleaner.

And there’s more. In one of our great opera companies the lead fell ill, and his understudy was also stricken. Reporting this on the BBC a spokesperson said: “I thought we would get down to the cleaner!!” Implication: how much lower could they get?

What does this tell us? Headlines say: Immigrants take jobs British won’t do. The former prime minister talked of “British jobs for British people”. Why won’t people take cleaning jobs? Too badly paid? Anti-social hours? But above all the stigma, the shame of working as a cleaner. Even prisoners on release are sometimes though not often enough are offered cleaning jobs. They will turn it down even if trained while in prison. No wonder re-offending is at around 60 per cent.

The government is seeking to turn around the fortunes of a country close to ruin where the State has previously provided far more than it should have done. Those who lose benefits complain, those paying more tax moan, anyone losing out moans. We need a sharp change in social attitudes and a more positive approach from those leading the industry.

Quangos are under threat. One of the largest with the greatest effect on all our lives is the Health & Safety Commission and its sidekick, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). Self promotion is desirable for all quangos and the HSE is exception. It proudly announces a considerable fall in fatalities and accidents in the workplace.

Where do these accidents mainly take place? In construction and for the last two years this area has been hit by redundancies, business failures and unemployment. You can still have an accident at home but not at work when there is no work to be had.


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