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New report: FLEX’s participatory research highlights systemic labour abuses experienced by UK cleaners

January 18, 2021

You feel belittled because you clean toilets, but if I don’t do my job properly, they all get sick. It’s a public health job – I’m freeing up the NHS from a lot of sick people. If I do my job right, I’m keeping things safe. We need to create awareness of the importance of our job. We are not the ‘least’, we are very important.

 Focus group participant, Spanish-speaking cleaners

Today FLEX publishes a new working paper on the experiences of cleaners in the UK. “If I Could Change Anything About My Work…” Participatory Research With Cleaners In The UK is the first in a series of working papers on the experiences and drivers of labour abuse and exploitation in three understudied low-paid sectors of the economy: cleaning, hospitality and the app-based courier sector. It highlights key workplace issues in the cleaning sector and the risk and resilience factors that impact cleaners’ vulnerability to – and ability to push back against – violations of their employment rights.

The paper also introduces our use of a new participatory methodology, which involves workers at every stage of the research process, from design to data collection and analysis. This feminist participatory action research approach has enabled workers to shape the research findings and recommendations, including workers who are at high-risk of exploitation but less frequently represented in policy research, such as undocumented migrants, people who do not speak English and those who work long and unsociable hours. By involving workers from some of the most at-risk groups, this report brings the voices of people with lived experience to the forefront and includes their perspectives in the policymaking process.


Our research found cleaning to be a high-risk sector for labour abuse and exploitation, with workers who responded to our survey* reporting the following:

  • Frequent issues with pay: 61% experienced issues with pay, such as not being paid for all hours worked (31%), not being paid at all (15%), not being paid on time (14%), not being paid holiday pay (12%), being paid a lower rate than initially promised (10%) and being paid less than the minimum wage (6%).
  • Inability to take time off ill: 21% felt they were never able to take time off ill, due to reasons including lack of access to sick pay (47% had no sick pay entitlements) and fear of losing work (20% said they had been afraid of losing work or having their hours reduced if they called in sick).
  • Dangerous working conditions: 60% experienced dangerous working conditions, including being asked to work without proper equipment (38%) and without the necessary personal protective gear (34%). In total, 86% reported experiencing health issues related to their work.
  • Work-related violence: 33% experienced sexual harassment at work, including sexualised comments (15%), pressure for dates (12%), unwelcome sexual advances (9%) and groping and unwanted touching (9%). This harassment was made worse by the power imbalance created by low pay, insecure working arrangements, outsourcing and manager discretion in assigning shifts.

We also found that the likelihood of cleaners experiencing the above issues was impacted by factors including:

  • Outsourcing, with pressure from client companies to cut costs leading to unrealistic cleaning contracts and downward pressure on wages and conditions.
  • Employment status, with those classed as ‘workers’ having fewer rights and protections compared to ‘employees’, and those classed as self-employed (whether falsely or legitimately) having close to no employment protections.
  • The absence of proactive labour inspections, with systemic underpayment of wages and other non-compliance by employers going undetected and unaddressed.
  • Discrimination, with workers being profiled to do specific tasks or types of work – for instance being placed back-of-house rather than front-of-house – based on race, ethnicity and nationality.
  • Immigration policy, with restrictions linked to immigration status creating barriers to workers accessing their rights and reporting exploitation and abuse.
  • Language barriers and knowledge of rights, with those who speak English, know their rights and where to get help being more resilient to labour abuses.
  • Unionisation, with trade union members being able to fight for better pay and terms and conditions through union support and campaigning.

Working on the frontline: Cleaners and Covid-19

These findings are highly relevant in the current context of the global pandemic, where cleaners are working on the frontline to contain the spread of Covid-19. The issues we found – from inadequate PPE to people being forced to work when sick – are not new but are now being highlighted on a mass scale due to Covid-19. Moreover, the pandemic has disproportionately impacted those who are more likely to be in low-paid and precarious work, including women, migrants and ethnic minorities. This is particularly relevant for outsourced cleaners, who have much fewer protections compared to in-house staff, often receiving worse pay, sick pay, pensions and parental leave than their in-house colleagues.

It is clearer than ever that much needs to be done – and urgently – to improve the situation of workers in cleaning. Many of these steps need to be taken by the government, such as proactively enforcing labour standards, especially those related to pay, sexual harassment and other health and safety matters; ensuring access to adequate sick pay; mitigating the vulnerabilities created by immigration policies and employment status; and introducing regulations to limit the negative impacts of outsourcing on workers.

Employers, including client companies whose cleaners are outsourced, also have a role to play. For example, the most effective responses to workplace sexual harassment documented by this research came from client companies using their position of power in the supply chain to intervene in cases of harassment experienced by outsourced workers. Similar steps could be taken to push for better wages, sick pay policies and the recognition of trade unions, or by bringing outsourced workers back in-house. Cleaning companies wanting to address the downward pressure that competing for cleaning contracts creates could advocate for the introduction of new regulation to level the playing field, such as joint and several liability legislation.

Whoever the actors, it is crucial that the solutions taken forward are informed by those most affected by them i.e., cleaners themselves. Workers have a wealth of knowledge about what leads to and drives labour abuse and exploitation in the cleaning sector, and we hope that by bringing this knowledge to the attention of policymakers we will start to see meaningful change on the ground.

Read the full report here.

This project is supported by Paul Hamlyn Foundation and Esmée Fairbairn Foundation.

* The survey ran in five languages (English, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian and Spanish) and reached 99 participants from 21 different nationality groups. Migrants accounted for 93% of respondents.