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ETUI report on cleaners ‘under pressure’

A report published early November by the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) considers the challenges to be overcome in improving the safety and health of cleaners and examines actions taken to achieve this goal. It notes that the European cleaning industry bodies representing both employers and workers are leading the way in improving the performance of the sector.

European cleaners under pressure

Bulgarian gypsy street cleaners. Image courtesy of

In February 2007 the European Commission published a new Community strategy on health and safety at work, which aims to reduce occupational accidents in the EU by 25%.
The strategy noted that some categories of workers are still overexposed to occupational risks, some types of companies are more vulnerable and some sectors are still particularly dangerous.
The cleaning industry has been singled out as belonging to this category.
The authors of the new ETUI report, entitled ‘Cleaning up: workers under pressure’, clearly understand the industry and the challenges it faces.
They recognise that poor cleaning can cause a business to fail and that when done well, it can reduce both costs to the company and the risks to workers’ safety and health. They agree that cleaning has a bad image and that workers are sometimes looked down on and their work taken for granted – and that related to this poor perception of cleaning work is that it is often carried out by women, by part-time workers, and by workers who are migrants or from ethnic minorities.
“Cleaners have to cope with changing workplaces, surfaces and cleaning materials, yet they are perceived as being ‘only cleaners’, with their qualifications and experience disregarded,” they say. “But choosing the right cleaning agents, equipment and procedures is important to extend the life of buildings, fittings, office equipment and furniture.”
The report recognises that unfair competition is a problem in the sector. It says that clandestine or undeclared employment, the limited financial resources required to set up a cleaning company, the non-existence of barriers to limit access to the profession and the fact that customers generally opt for the cheapest solution, are the main reasons for the fierce competition within the sector.
“The tendency for cleaning work to be contracted out with tenders considered on the basis of price alone means that there is heavy pressure on cleaning companies to cut costs,” it says. “This can result in an inadequate investment in training and other management activities essential for worker protection.
“As labour costs tend to make up the bulk of the costs of a cleaning business, there is a risk that unscrupulous employers may seek an unfair advantage in tendering by resorting to illegal employment practices such as not paying full social insurance costs or hiring illegal labour, so driving down the market price… legitimate companies that invest for the long term through training and staff development can then be forced out of the market.
“Good procurement practice – considering value for money rather than just the price – benefits all concerned: client companies, cleaning enterprises, and workers.”
The report recognises that cleaning is often done outside normal working hours, frequently in the early morning, evening or night… that the workers may be employed on part-time and temporary contracts and are often doing more than one job.
“Such working patterns can increase risks to worker health and safety,” it says. “While in some workplaces cleaning cannot be carried out during normal business hours, often it can be – a change that can benefit the cleaning company, the cleaner and the client.”
The report says that as cleaning work is seldom seen as a core activity in businesses, this can result in a lack of awareness of the hazards and risks associated with cleaning and so a failure to carry out an adequate risk assessment and implement protective measures.
It says that the work-related health disorders found in cleaners include:
* musculoskeletal disorders
* work-related stress, anxiety and sleeping disorders
* skin diseases such as contact dermatitis and eczema
* respiratory disorders including asthma
* cardiovascular diseases
Some of the strategies for improvements that it recommends are:
* select your cleaning service by value, not price;
* switch to daytime cleaning;
* value the cleaners and the work they do – if it is done wrong, it can cost the business;
* see cleaning as an essential task which can expose the workers to particular hazards and risks;
* assess the risks to cleaning workers and implement preventive measures;
* share knowledge with all relevant parties, including the client company, the cleaning contractor and the workers themselves.
The report makes interesting reading and is worth investigating whether you are involved in employing or managing your own in-house cleaning staff or are responsible for procuring cleaning services – or if you are a cleaning contractor. It is available at:

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