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Soapbox: What's wrong with the cleaning industry?

* cleaning-masterclass-cover.jpgMary de Cobos of Futureclean Assured Systems comments on the recent Equalities & Human Rights Commission's reports on the cleaning industry and explains how she feels that we as an industry can put things right:

I write regarding commentary on the recently released EHRC reports on pay and conditions in the commercial cleaning industry (1 & 2) (13-08-2014) and the report on contractual conditions for cleaning companies (3). As consultants and developers in cleaning systems and well experienced cleaners ourselves, the following are our observations about these reports.

The EHRC recently released these two reports on the treatment of cleaning personnel in the commercial cleaning industry. It makes dreadful and sobering reading not only for the cleaning industry itself but also for all the facilities the industry is contracted to serve. By that we mean the people procuring the cleaning services and their facilities managers, none of whom are shown favourably in the report.

The cleaning industry is at the bottom of any pile - and it is largely its own fault that it is in dire straits. The market (UK) is dominated by just a few very large companies; usually cleaning is a minor offshoot of the company who will have global interests in many varied sectors, usually more profitable ones than cleaning. The cleaning side of the business is lumped in with maintenance and facilities management functions, each with a chain of management stretching endlessly into the distance, yet these are usually the only companies which are invited to tender for the cleaning contracts. So hands-on work is down to supervisors and their supervisors and their supervisors, ad infinitum... No personal service there then, so who is going to care, especially someone on minimum wage.

One thing which struck us immediately was the tight control over the contract by the contracting company, not the cleaning company. The only thing which seemed to matter was how much money they could save on the contract, so the natural and obvious result was that cleaning services had to be reduced in so many ways. Note the comments about how the "cleaning company was crap". Yet the contracts managers were pushing hard to reduce costs all the time and not by a small amount. This is common practice. Now if the contract costs are considered to be 'high to excessive', then either there is a serious amount of work to do and the cleaner requirement is high, or the cleaning company is charging high but maintaining only the lowest levels of cleaners they can get away with. Both are customary practice, so the contracts are fraught with big problems continuously, which makes performance difficult.

Note particularly how in low regard the cleaners are held by both the contractors and those working in the facilities' being cleaned.

Training is an obvious issue. It's a 'body' only just to fill the contract needs, so no extra money needs to be spent. Where training is given, it seems to be of low level standard and only just enough to cover health & safety issues, but even less on cleaning techniques; in fact the cleaning companies seem to want their cleaners already trained before they will employ them. Now if that is the case then this means that their entire workforce will only be trained to the bare minimum. The 'shadow' system where the new recruit follows the experienced cleaner around for a week or so only perpetuates poor working practices.

Together with lack of training and expertise, out goes any idea of quality and quality control. All the largest companies have ISO 9000; one at least seems to be applying six sigma (which is document rich and not always suitable for cleaning). The report thinks it's amazing that one company is "innovative" in using zoning, a standard cleaning practice for many years!

It's no use the EHRC pulling together unions, the large cleaning companies and other interested parties to try to resolve issues; no-one really understands the issues that cleaning brings, because so very few understand the practical aspects of cleaning - least of all the aforementioned bodies.
In fairness the reports focus mainly on how badly the cleaners were treated by both parties to the contract and they demonstrated that quite well, but they did not get to the real root of the problems besetting the industry.

These are:

(1) What is generally considered...

The treatment of the cleaners as professionals is non-existent because the general consideration is that cleaning isn't a 'professional' job and that anyone can do it. The end result is that the expectations are indeed low and no one is disappointed. The cleaning is just something that happens and the person who does the cleaning is faceless and characterless.

But the reality is...

The knowledge that cleaners should have (but usually don't) is actually quite extensive - rather more than either contracting party management is likely to have. However no-one believes this until a surface material is damaged, a builder's clean has to be done, or a burst sewer pipe remains has to be cleaned. No this is not always specialist work, but in each instance someone, somewhere, has to know exactly what to do and with what system for cleaning.

So, what knowledge do cleaners really need?

Cleaners need to know the following:

* How to handle the cleaning products and equipment and which ones to use and under what circumstances (or not) - for example when to use an acid and when to use an alkali and where you can't use water
* How to complete the work as efficiently but as rapidly as possible meanwhile delivering a properly finished job of work
* What to look for during the clean and how to deal with any problems which might arise, and in any specific environment
* What surface materials are in play and how to clean each type
* Safety precautions to avoid problems on any site and when to employ them - over and above general site safety issues. Cleaners have one of the highest rates of musculo-skeletal disorders of any industry - and they also account directly and indirectly for a large proportion of slip and trip incidents. This costs the industry in lost days and often highly expensive claims through court action, so it is self -defeating to use untrained cleaners.
Cleaning is just not a spray bottle and a cloth. It's much more than that, but things will not improve anywhere until most people understand these factors and agree to pay for professionalism. Until then nothing will change.

(2) What is generally considered...

The contract doesn't need a large amount spending on it and that includes cleaners.

But the reality is...

By the time the cleaners are put on the job, it's realised that you've either over or under-estimated the work - but then so has the contractor. This produces gross distortions in the contract value and so the situation arises where pressure is put on the cleaning company to cut costs - even if they have literally cut to the bone to get the contract in the first place.

(3) What is generally considered...

Housekeepers and people in similar positions know exactly what needs doing and the cleaning schedules reflect this, as does the product and equipment procurement.

But the reality is...

It's a rare housekeeper who does know what is actually needed and that includes products and equipment procurement. Cleaning companies under contract usually have to follow the housekeeper's dictates, however wild they are. This takes away the professionalism of a cleaning company straight away. If a housekeeper insists on using bleach, for example, but the cleaning company cleaners are not allowed to use it then there is conflict. Who is correct? The knowledge of cleaning should lie with the cleaners, but also with the housekeeper.

We would cite the case of the housekeeper of a health centre who thought that dusting was sufficient, that all the colour coded equipment was stored together and that regular household products were sufficient to clean a very busy health centre, including using bleach. Sadly this is a regular occurrence. We would expect a housekeeper to at least survey the areas to be cleaned daily, but no, it's usually fixed in stone. As soon as a bit is missed then all hell breaks loose.

Quality control and quality assurance: where is it?

Cleaning needs a full unique quality system in place and cleaners need to be trained to work to that. This is not ISO9000 which does not easily apply to cleaning. Cleaning's requirement is much simpler than that. Cleaning has unique characteristics which set it apart from other industries. These are:

* There are no sites where the cleaning company is actually based - it is all remote based and these can be many miles away from the headquarters.

* Cleaners usually cannot be seen to be cleaning during the day, no matter how much better this is in the long run. They work either early mornings or late evenings so that there is little to no control of cleaners by the workers on the customer's site... No control but also no contact so in effect there are two separate types of workers on each site. The contracting company has to assume that the work is done correctly and no-one actually knows whether there are any problems, or even wants to address them.

In truth there are probably a huge amount of problems with the cleaning but so long as there are cleaned areas, no-one will address them. Cleaners get the blame for everything and they deserve it in many cases - but not all, by a long way. Many problems are caused by the customers.

Some solutions:

* A standardised system by, for example, British Institute standards, would regularise the varied standards produced, and go a long way to remove the abuses highlighted in the EHRC reports. This is easily linked to a unique quality system and system of working which can be as simple as possible.

* Education of housekeepers and similar in the common required standards. It's no use saying that surfaces have to be visibly clean. That means nothing. The real requirement is with respect to the area and its use. For example dry dusting is a complete waste of a cleaner's time and positively useless in the case of the health centre (see 3. above) or a hospital ward, yet look at how much 'dusting' is asked for. And then you wonder why the surfaces and the cleaning of them is so poor!

* Cleaning products should have a standard attached to them. The only standard is again the ISO 9000 and the ISO 14000 environmental standard attached to the manufacturer... Nothing for suitability of purpose - that is left to the purchaser, probably with the aid of the product salesman and you have to hope that he knows what's what. They don't always. It would be much easier to have a defined industrial standard over and above what is presented in the technical specification and this would make procurement much easier.

At present anything goes and usually only on price, so when you are persuaded that accurate dilutions aren't needed and you just use it straight from the can does anyone think that this is a very expensive load of water you are purchasing? It might have a nice smell though!

* Training is seriously lacking. There are very few training courses available where cleaners are actually taught the real methods of cleaning, without being attached to a product manufacturer.

We have developed our courses and manuals based entirely around practical, whole area cleaning methods, derived from our own experience of construction cleaning, industrial and food industry cleaning - methods which are applicable anywhere. A few well-trained and professional cleaners can do the work in half the time, than twice as many untrained and usually demoralised cleaners, but the cleaning company will have to pay decent wages and the contractors should recognise this. It's all right for the report authors feeling sorry for the cleaners, but who is going to work like they do and in those conditions? Only people who are desperate for a job, and at those wages it just isn't worth it, yet the big companies will continue to keep out the smaller companies from most contracts, so again nothing will change and no cleaner will stay with them unnecessarily.

* The provision of a general quality assurance system is lacking and yet there are enough organisations around to work one out. Nothing has ever been done about it in many years if ever. We developed our own for a customer of ours and it works well. When most - if not all, industries work to a recognisable quality system and standards of their own, why then is cleaning not doing the same?

Think about it. Cleaning is a skilled job when it is done correctly and there should be a guarantee of satisfaction. This has to be done on appearance and area use and you should consider the importance that cleaning has in the HACCP provisions in the food industry. There are no QA provisions in a hospital cleaning system, which is odd when you think that a hospital could probably do with the same type of system.

In conclusion:

Would you want to work for a typical cleaning company as shown by EHRC reports? Wouldn't you think that it's about time some professionalism came into the industry? We would welcome arguments, discussions and proposals. We think this subject is too important to ignore for while the cleaning industry won't go away, it won't get any better either and the image problem, solely caused by the industry, will remain.

We invite questions and suggestions for ways forward from people who really want to see an improvement. You may not necessarily be directly concerned in the industry but if enough people come forward we may see what may be done.

Mary de Cobos, Futureclean Assured Systems
E: [email protected]
W: www.futurecleansystems.com

Cleaner Training:
E: [email protected]
W: www.cleaningmasterclass.com

1 Equality & Human Rights Commission (EHRC). The Invisible Workforce: Employment Practices in the Cleaning Sector. www.equalityhumanrights.com
2 Equality & Human Rights Commission (EHRC). Research report 95 - Coming clean: the experience of cleaning operatives. www.equalityhumanrights.com
3 Equality & Human Rights Commission (EHRC). Research report 96 - Coming clean: contractual and procurement practices. www.equalityhumanrights.com

4th September 2014

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