In this blog, Professor Miguel Martínez Lucio of the Work and Equalities Institute and the Alliance Manchester Business School and Dr Jo McBride of Durham University discuss the question of how we have failed to value the work and importance of those in the area of cleaning and hygiene-related employment more generally. The need now is to consider how such workers are engaged with and supported through a greater framework, with respect and dignity being paramount. This is essential if we are to overcome the challenges of ongoing crises such as that of the current pandemic.
- For some time, the work of cleaners has been challenged by an undermining of their work and a general demeaning of what some would refer to as and assume to be ‘unskilled’ employment.
- Yet, millions of these frontline staff, now viewed as key workers, have been keeping the country running while facing risks to their own and their families’ health.
- The very way we think of ‘unskilled’ work needs to be challenged and the value of work has to be economically and symbolically supported in a more effective manner.
Even before the introduction of social distancing at workplaces, many cleaning workers found they were working more in isolation (due to job cuts and less supervision). We interviewed cleaners working across four different public sector organisations to learn about their experiences in the workplace. Alongside working more in isolation, many cleaners are being left to decide what they feel is a work priority, indicating that they are taking on more of a decision-making role in the workplace. This sense of increasing discretion could be perceived, albeit superficially, as a further complexity of the work. This undermines the use of the term ‘unskilled’. Others began to draw out a growing sense of awareness of the negative context of the environment and the way it impacts on their work and decision-making.
The context of safety and violence in many aspects of cleaning
Due to the growing isolation of their work, many of the cleaners we interviewed felt they were also at greater risk in terms of danger, fear, and violent threats. Cleaners who worked alone explained how they had experienced more direct forms of threats, particularly when working in public spaces. Levels of physical abuse were significant. Many of these workers perceived recent cuts to their operations as a contributory reason for an increase in negativity by the public and were having to respond to this in various ways. One domestic refuse collector told us: “Oh, you get abuse all the time, like. I’ve had stuff thrown at me, bags and everything. They come out and swear and shout at you.”
Austerity and cutbacks
Street cleaners especially have needed greater discretion in their job, not only in threatening or violent situations, but also when facing hazards to their health in the work they undertake, such as when handling discarded, dirty needles on the streets. Cleaners have to also help each other develop their knowledge of challenging areas of work and how to respond without the necessary materials. Their roles are expanding to the point where they include managerial dimensions in terms of decision-making and using greater levels of discretion in terms of thinking through the consequences of actions. It is increasingly clear for the street cleaner to be given more responsibility of supervising another worker yet for this not to be valued remuneratively or by management. These are administrative features of their work which do not actually get recognised.
Stigma and the feeling of being valued
One of the challenges facing cleaners in recent years is the stigma attached to the job, as they are seen as unskilled and low paid. These concepts reinforce a sense of worthlessness – and that the job being done is ‘unimportant’.
In terms of stigma, and its related factors of dirty work, unpleasant work and risk, internal cleaners in our study thus received negative social perceptions of their work but also of the whole purpose of it. It is not just that the person doing the job is undervalued, but that the purpose of the job and its significance is simply not fully understood. This has a massive impact in terms of the way the economy is misunderstood and the way certain core activities that are important to sustain it are undermined. In stigmatising cleaners, the whole question of hygiene and health is undermined and thus is underinvested.
This lack of appreciation and even of the recognition of new challenges of these jobs also extended to other workers in the study. These were in relation to external cleaners, some of whom demonstrated that, despite verbal abuse and a lack of respect from some members of the public, they still had a sense of feeling dignified despite others’ negative perception of their work. Stigmatising workers and seeing it as peripheral work means that the core purpose and value of that sector is undermined. This has been happening for some time and has had a major knock-on effect on the way recruitment, development and quality within the economy is undermined within its very foundations.
Yet the COVID-19 pandemic has introduced a ‘Clap for Carers’ campaign of public appreciation for workers, involving some in our study. This demonstrates a mutual social perception of the value of much of this work and there is already a re-evaluation of such work in the public discourse.
Rethinking the way we envisage work and employment
First, the value of work has to be economically and symbolically supported in a more effective manner. The way we see the economy in skewed terms and the way we envisage support workers such as cleaners has curious knock-on effects. When there is a moment of crisis and work such as cleaning is deemed suddenly to be essential, we find that these subsectors are literally unable to respond to the challenge at hand due to their demoralised state or limited support in material terms.
Second, the need to recruit, retrain, upskill and retain such workers must be pushed into the centre of the political discussion. The lack of resourcing and the aggressive, and dysfunctional, management cultures that cleaners face prevents workers from pursuing a balanced and more effective approach to their work. This has led to immense fragmentation brought on by ongoing subcontracting and performance management which is not concerned with long-term development.
Third, the very way we think of ‘unskilled’ work needs to be challenged. Even key employer organisations within the cleaning sector have argued for decades that there is a need to not just value but professionalise the work and to remove the stigma of it being unskilled. The importance of health and hygiene is an important feature of the welfare interventions of the state. The need to recast our personal and political mindsets to include the voice and concerns of bodies of workers such as cleaning workers will be a challenge for future policymakers. It is also a cultural challenge in a society where the construction and maintenance of our infrastructure has played a secondary role compared to its commercialisation.
Millions of these frontline staff, now viewed as key workers, have been keeping the country running while facing risks to their own and their families’ health. The fact that they are ‘keeping the country running’ again undermines the persistent use of the term ‘unskilled’ with regards to this work. Indeed, this work is currently being recognised and valued across our communities in a way that has not been the case for some time. We therefore need to ensure that this continues to be recognised as valuable and meaningful work.