The invisible army: How they treat the worker who cleans your desk

They arrive before dawn or after the sun goes down. The office workers do not see them. The nurses and patients and professors barely notice them. But every day they go to work, in corporate headquarters, universities and hospitals, and they clean.

They are some of the most vulnerable workers in the country. They are overwhelmingly from overseas, often ignorant of their rights, frequently paid under the minimum wage and treated dismissively by those they come in contact with.

It is an industry with an annual turnover of £8 billion and nearly half a million employees. But today's report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) – The Invisible Workforce: Outsourcing and Employment in the Cleaning Sector – shows pay and conditions are more akin to Victorian London than a modern economy.

It's not just employers who treat them this way. Cleaners often report being treated as the lowest of the low by the other workers they come in contact with.

One Jamaican woman employed by a cleaning firm said:

"The attitude, you are cleaning and people just walk inside it when you are mopping and they don't say excuse me. Or you just wash up and people … throw down their cups and plates. You feel bad. They look at you with scorn, they don't even say excuse me or hello."

A Czech female agency worker in the healthcare industry said:

"We get no respect or support from our supervisors and the ward staff shout at us. This is because we are not regarded as human beings. We are afraid to complain in case we are sacked."

An Egyptian man added:

"I do my job very, very clean… in the toilet, five kids go and make it dirty, laugh at you, they take advantage if you are cleaner, a foreigner. They see you are cleaner, wait you go out for five minutes, when you come back you see a surprise!"

The cleaning industry is one of the most diverse in the country. One firm reported having 169 different nationalities on its payroll. There are only 207 nationalities in the world.

But the diversity of the industry is usually not considered a plus, except for facilitating exploitation. It is a reason to exploit the relative vulnerability of people who do not know their rights and struggle to articulate themselves in English.

Cleaners – mostly from Latin America – on strike outside a London university

Many workers report being harassed and abused. Others say they are prevented from using work facilities like the canteen. Some pregnant women are sacked as a result. Others feel they are discriminated against because of their nationality.

The failure to provide adequate facilities for workers to take a break means many use their sole ten-minute break in a five-hour shift walking to and from the spot they are allowed to sit down and rest in.

Low pay is prevalent across the industry. In the leisure sector, there's evidence of piece rates, where workers technically have an hourly wage, but are in fact paid on the basis of cleaning a set number of rooms. The target is often unrealistic and means they are paid less than the minimum wage.

The report found the prevalence of the non-payment or under-payment of wages could in some cases be considered a sign of forced labour.

And that's when they get paid. Many workers report underpayment or non-payment of their wages. Unclear payslips cement the problems, with no clear indication of how pay is calculated or if the right amount has been paid. Many workers say they did not receive the holiday or sick pay they are entitled to.

An anonymous worker said:

"I am having difficulty getting my wages. This is a problem, which has been ongoing throughout the term of my employment lasting nine months. Given that I live in poverty at the best of times delayed payment can have a significant impact resulting in having to walk to the university, which is quite some distance away, as well as go without food for the day. Direct debits have to be cancelled also and this can also make life difficult and add pressure for example when citations come regards late payment of council tax.  I am now having difficulty in getting the holiday pay I am legally entitled to."

A Nigerian man added:

"In my working place, it happens all the time. You work so-so hours a week and they want to pay you, they take one, two or three hours away, and you go to the office and complain … 'We'll sort it out, we'll sort it out'… Then it’s going to go on your next payday. Sometimes they don't pay you anymore; it's happened to me several times. You keep going to them for that hours, then you'll be scared maybe you are troubling, then they'll tell you to stop the job, so you just let it go. It's happened to me several times."

A Latvian woman said:

"I have been working for the company for 5 years now, and have not [got] an employment contract… I get fortnightly payslips where my hours, hourly rate and holiday pay is shown. But it is not clear to me why and how the holiday pay is deducted from my wages as it has not been explained to me by the director. I am extremely unhappy that there is no contract for my employment, as I am constantly afraid to be fired, as this has happened on many occasions with my other co-workers. Also the unclear payslip bothers me a lot, and the director of the company is never welcoming to explain any of my queries."

Many employees are told by their manager that they are not entitled to holiday or sick leave. Some feel pressured to come into work when they are ill.

A Jamaican man said:

"Whenever you phone up to book your holidays, it’s always a problem. You are supposed to get holidays by rights, but they say they can't find anyone to cover. But they still won't pay you for holidays, they say 'I will get back to you' until the holiday [entitlement] has run out. Then they say 'the holiday has passed, you let your holiday go'."

A Somalian man added:

"She doesn’t trust you if you are sick, sometimes she gives like you are lying. The way she talks, it is very hard. It's like when you are sick you are lying … I had a gall stone, I was having ultrasound – all that. Still she say to me 'you are lying, you are not sick'."

It's not just the nationality of cleaners which allows employers to get away with these conditions. The increase in outsourcing hammers down wages and work practices further.
Cleaning is now commonly outsourced, which tends to give greater weight to the lowest price. This puts cleaning firms under pressure to deliver the highest quality service at the lowest possible price. They usually do that by reducing pay rates, increasing work intensity, or creating a more flexible workforce.

They are the invisible army: cleaning your desk, mopping the floor of the hallway. You rarely see them and when you do, you probably do not notice them. This is how they are treated by those who do. It's our dirty secret.