Ending modern slavery and human trafficking should concern all of us. But for the cleaning industry, it’s an issue that is too close for comfort.

There are a host of reasons why we might find victims of exploitation in the cleaning industry.

Migrant workforce

Firstly, migrant workers are over-represented in cleaning work.  A recent report showed that 21% of the workforce in the cleaning industry are non-British workers, compared to 18% across all sectors.

Workers born outside of the UK are more likely to be in low paid occupations. This could be because of a lack of English language skills or knowledge of the UK jobs market. However, they are also more likely to be over-qualified for the work they are doing.

In addition, foreign-born workers are more likely to be involved in shift work (21%, compared to 15% of UK-born workers). They are also more likely to be in part-time work involuntarily, because they are unable to find a full time position.

These characteristics are all common to work in the cleaning industry – part time, shift work, and low pay. Cleaners in the UK earn on average £10.21 per hour. This is below the National Living Wage of £10.42 and substantially below the Real Living Wage of £12 per hour.

So we know that migrant workers are more likely to be working in the cleaning industry as a whole. But why might this lead to more instances of exploitation in the cleaning industry?

Recruitment crisis

There is a recruitment crisis in the cleaning industry, with an estimated 225,000 unfilled vacancies. Between 50 and 60% of cleaning companies are struggling to fulfil contracted hours because of staff shortages.

Following Brexit and then the COVID 19 pandemic, many EU workers returned to their home countries. Other former cleaners moved into other sectors. Under new immigration rules, cleaning is classified as “low skilled.” This makes it more difficult for potential workers to move to the UK to fill these vacancies.

The cleaning industry also faces rising overheads such as energy bills and increases in the minimum wage. So it is easy to see how some parts of the cleaning industry may be tempted to take advantage of cheap migrant labour. That could mean knowingly using workers who are victims of exploitation. Or it could mean turning a blind eye to unscrupulous recruitment practices used by agencies or sub-contractors.

Who are the victims of exploitation?

A report by the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLA) provides a profile of victims of exploitation in the cleaning industry. It describes victims as ‘often female, and of Bulgarian or unknown Eastern European nationality…. The most frequently reported location is London.’  

This is a sobering read. It could be describing the typical profile of our own team, here in the city.

The impact of exploitation

I saw first hand the impact of exploitation and trafficking, in my work for International Justice Mission and Stop The Traffik. And I witnessed how these injustices are happening in our communities in plain sight. It could be on our high streets, in nail bars, or in car washes. And it could be in the cleaning businesses working in our offices or our homes.

It’s what motivated me to found my own cleaning business, to do things differently.

Taking a stand

Many cleaning businesses now publish policies setting out the steps they are taking on human trafficking and exploitation. I hope that the cleaning industry as a whole will be vigilant about spotting the signs. We must ensure that we are not complicit in it, and we need to make a vocal stand against it. We need to communicate with our clients so they understand the real cost of cleaning, and we need to push the government to create a fairer environment where our sector, and our workers, can thrive.

What can you do to ensure that your cleaner is not the victim of exploitation?

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I’m Antoinette and the CEO of Just Helpers Cleaning Agency. I’m passionate about social justice and empowering people to find their joy, work from a place of strength and positively impact the world around them. When not trying to save the world 😉 I love cooking up a storm in my kitchen and eating and chatting around a table with friends. Find me at antoinettedaniel.com.

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