· 1 min read · Features

The invisible workforce: contracted cleaners

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The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s inquiry into employment conditions in the cleaning sector has called its half million workers the ‘invisible workforce’; unappreciated and unnoticed.

One reason for this invisibility is that cleaning is mainly contracted out to specialist firms, so that the cleaners do not share the same employers as others at the site where they work. The cleaning workforce is generally poorly paid and is often unrewarded for additional training and skills, or for working during unsocial hours in the evenings, early mornings and weekends.

Our research, commissioned by the Equality and Human Rights Commission as part of its inquiry, sought to investigate how procurement – or the way contracts are set up between the client and supplier organisations – together with HR policies can shape cleaners’ working conditions.

The research confirmed that the outsourced cleaning workforce is low paid and that there is a lack of investment in skills and training. Part of the problem is that a strong focus on cost competition for contracts drives down employment conditions.

Based on the findings from six case studies of the outsourced cleaning sector in diverse private and public sector organisations, we show how better practice procurement and HR management can help alleviate these pressures and improve working conditions.

Clients may also benefit from better practices. For example, in some cases we found that there were clear business needs for stronger integration between the client and supplier workforce and that better contracting might contribute to the client’s reputation as a good employer. The reputations of both the local authority and the bank in our set of case studies benefitted from the policy of paying the London living wage to their outsourced cleaners, at a time when local authorities are cutting back on services and banks face an uphill struggle to be seen as responsible organisations.

One main implication of the research is that it shows how the HR function has significant scope to improve working conditions. While cost may be a deciding factor, HR could emphasise the value of longer-term contracts as a way of encouraging investment in skills, training and development.

There may also be arrangements for minimum training levels, joint investment in training and the promotion of better working time through removing zero-hours contracts and additional payments for unsocial hours work. 

Professor Jill Rubery is professor of comparative employment systems at Manchester Business School