UNI Global survey - working around the clock

9th of January 2024
UNI Global survey - working around the clock

During the summer, a ground-breaking international survey of cleaners commissioned by UNI Global Union and UNI Europa, shed light on the significant challenges faced by cleaning professionals who work irregular and unsocial shifts. The survey, which received responses from over 2,500 cleaners in 32 countries across six continents, highlights the detrimental effects of shift work on the health, well-being, and social inclusion of workers. We take a closer look at the report’s findings.

SHIFT WORK - and especially night work - is known to be detrimental to the health, well-being and social inclusion of workers. Which is why UNI Global Union and UNI Europa have been advocating for a full transition to daytime work in the cleaning sector for over a decade. This year, UNI commissioned an international survey of cleaners in order to examine the progress that has been made towards this goal and to shed a greater light on the way persistent irregular and unsocial shifts affect cleaners around the world.

Over 2,500 cleaners from 32 countries across 6 continents responded to the survey. While their answers indicated some slight differences in country-by-country conditions, more striking was the high degree of similarity across borders. When it comes to the way work schedules impact their lives, cleaners worldwide face the same challenges.

The results of the survey are clear says UNI: cleaners who work shifts other than the day shift are worse off than their peers. The specific, observable effects are varied and diverse, but highly interrelated. Evening and night workers struggle to find time to see their friends and families. When they manage to, they often do not have the energy to make the most of their time, as poor sleep schedules and exhaustion affect both physical and mental health. Relationships are strained.

Social life is sacrificed.

Given these facts, supported by the grimly consistent picture painted by over 10,000 words of testimony from respondents, why do cleaners work shifts other than the day shift at all? The overwhelming majority simply do not have a choice. Sometimes this lack of agency is direct: employers and clients may not offer daytime shifts.

For many cleaners, however, it comes down to economics. Non-daytime shifts often pay better. As working-class people around the world struggle to make ends meet with the rising cost of living, higher wages for night work appear less like a bonus and more like a necessity. Even so, despite economic pressure, most cleaners who exclusively work the day-shift said they would not switch to working nights, even for better pay.

Cleaners’ own words

The report written by UNI Global Union and UNI Europa based on the survey findings presents a comprehensive look at the results of the survey, from both a quantitative and a qualitative perspective - keeping the voices of cleaners in their own words at the forefront.

The sample obtained from the survey is representative of the known demographics of the global cleaning workforce as a whole. Nearly 70 per cent of respondents identified as female, while around 25 per cent identified as immigrants in the country where they work and 20 per cent identified as people of colour.

Fifty-five per cent of respondents reported working 20 to 40 hours a week. Over a quarter said they work more than 40 hours a week. And 26.2 per cent of respondents said they work more than one job - these cleaners were about 30 per cent more likely to work more than 40 hours a week.

When do cleaners work?

Just 30.3 per cent of cleaners surveyed indicated they exclusively work standard day shifts (eg, starting around 8 or 9am and ending around 5 or 6pm). The rest said they regularly work at least some afternoon, evening, early morning, or night shifts in an average month. Just half of respondents work only during one specific period of the day. The most common shift combination reported was early morning and day shifts, but many respondents also said they regularly work three or more different types of shifts in an average month.

Around 13 per cent of workers surveyed said they regularly work night shifts. In some countries, such as Colombia, Tunisia and the US, this number was 20 per cent or above. Given what is known about the many adverse effects of night work, its persistence at these levels is concerning, not least to cleaners themselves.

At one point in the survey, cleaners who work exclusively during the daytime were asked how their life might change if they had to start working nights. The intensity of many replies evokes a sense of extreme anxiety at the prospect, along with a keen understanding of what it would mean for them. One day shift cleaner in Finland said: “It would ruin me,” while a German cleaner working day shifts said: “Life would be completely turned upside down.” “I see how it affects others,” added a cleaner in Ireland.

The health costs of invisible work

Cleaners who only work day shifts get better sleep, have better diets, consume less cigarettes and alcohol and report fewer effects on their mental health than their peers who work other shifts. The results of the survey show significant adverse health effects afflicting cleaners who work at night. Many can be traced back to a single, fundamental root cause - so fundamental that several respondents expressed it in nearly identical words: “Night is for sleeping.”

The survey found sleep is particularly challenging for those who work outside the day shift. Nearly seven out of 10 night cleaners reported getting too little sleep, compared to just three out of 10 of cleaners who work only day shifts. Sleep is not optional for the maintenance of a healthy life and these results suggest that nighttime cleaners find it nearly impossible to adequately adapt their sleep schedules to a nocturnal rhythm.

Several respondents who work exclusively during the day referred to this issue directly. “I need sleep and this is not possible during the day,” explained a Belgian cleaner working a day shift. While another in Colombia said: “During the day there is sun and too much noise to sleep”

Being tired on the job exposes workers to greater risks. As one German night cleaner noted, “accidents at work often happen at night”. It is important to note that while night-shift workers suffer the most in this regard, more than half of those who work early mornings and evenings also report getting too little sleep. By far, the least sleep-deprived workers are those who only work day shifts.

This pattern repeats itself across a range of other adverse health issues, as shown in the graph on this page. The percentage of cleaners reporting poor eating habits as a result of their work schedule rises steadily from 41.8 per cent to nearly 54 per cent as the day goes on. Maintaining a regular diet is easier for morning and day workers, while over half of both evening and night workers struggle to do so.

Aside from physical health, a shared understanding emerges from cleaner testimony about the holistic negative impact of non-day shifts on other aspects of well-being. The percentage of night workers who indicated their schedules lead them to consume too much alcohol, cigarettes and other substances was more than double that of their peers (12.2 per cent versus 5.4 per cent).

Nearly 46 per cent of night cleaners and 48 per cent of evening cleaners cited negative impacts on their mental health as a result of their work schedule - while only 30.3 per cent of exclusively day-shift cleaners said the same. While some of this difference may be explained by sleep deprivation, cleaners working early mornings, afternoons, evenings and nights also reported higher rates of social isolation than their peers on the day shift.

Dangers of the night

Female cleaners who work night shifts face disturbingly high rates of harassment compared to their peers on other shifts, according to the results of the survey. Cleaners who work outside of daytime hours often find themselves commuting and working in the darkness, exposing them to risks they might otherwise avoid if their jobs did not require it of them.

These risks are not shared equally among all cleaners. Survey respondents were asked if they ever feel unsafe at work - their responses expose a complex gender dynamic. It is apparent that male and female cleaners feel distinct levels of insecurity on the job. Interestingly, the gap in perceived safety between genders varies across shifts.

During the morning shift, male cleaners feel less safe than females. This gap persists to some extent into the day shift and may be due to a social tendency for males to be assigned more physically demanding tasks - that question is out of the scope of the survey.

As the day continues into afternoon and night, however, the percentage of female cleaners who sometimes feel unsafe rises quickly, from a low of 30.4 per cent on the day shift to a high of 43.4 per cent on the night shift, far surpassing the percentage of male night-shift workers who feel the same (37.3 per cent).

Respondents were asked whether they had ever been harassed on the way to or from work. Their responses show female cleaners who work the night shift are much more likely to be harassed while commuting than their peers on other shifts. The spike in reported harassment is sharp, jumping from a stable point under 20 per cent for female cleaners of all shifts from morning until evening, to over 30 per cent for night workers. It should be noted that male cleaners also report relatively higher levels of harassment during their commutes in both the early mornings and at night.

Impact on life

Cleaners who work the evening and night shifts are nearly twice as likely as day-shift cleaners to say that their work schedules get in the way of their social and family lives. Unsocial shifts put cleaners out of sync with those around them, with damaging effects on their social life.

The majority of cleaners who work shifts other than the day shift do so because they need the extra pay to make ends meet, according to the results of the survey. For many others, day shifts simply are not an option. All together, nearly seven in 10 cleaners work non-day shifts because they effectively have no choice. Roughly 51 per cent of cleaners who work night shifts feel they don’t have control over their schedules, compared to 33.9 per cent of cleaners who do not work at night.

Around a quarter of cleaners who work shifts other than the day shift indicated that day shifts are simply not available. Another third said that exclusive daytime work would not suit other aspects of their lives, such as family time or their study schedule. For over half of respondents, however, the problem was one of economic necessity.

It must be said a few cleaners do in fact prefer evening or night work. Some mention the relative calm of cleaning an empty building as opposed to one that’s full, busy and perhaps chaotic. Others enjoy the freedom to get things like errands and appointments done during the day. While these respondents form a small minority, their clearly stated preferences emphasise that the most pro-worker policy would be one that gives workers as much agency and control as possible.

Conclusions

Given the evident and disturbing negative effects of unsocial cleaning shifts, UNI Global Union and UNI Europa believe it is now essential for all parties in the cleaning sector to promote daytime cleaning. It says the industry as a whole will benefit from the change as unsocial hours are contributing to the sector’s labour shortages. “Reversing this trend means improving the conditions of cleaners’ work. It means increasing cleaners’ visibility in our workplaces, in our daily lives and in society at large,” it concludes.

To find out more: uniglobalunion.org

 

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