In September 2013 the Equality and Human Rights Commission launched a project to examine employment practices in the cleaning sector in England, Scotland and Wales. The findings have now been published in a new report, released today (wednesday), entitled ‘The Invisible Workforce: Employment Practices in the Cleaning Sector’

The contract cleaning industry in Britain has an estimated turnover of £8 billion annually, employs 446,000 people and is ranked the third largest such industry in Europe. Initial evidence indicated a significant number of claims of discrimination and non-payment of wages in the sector, so we wanted to establish the nature and extent of any problems, and identify levers to deliver improvements. The cleaning industry employs a higher proportion of female, ethnic minority and migrant and older workers compared to the average UK workforce. We wanted to explore not only the extent of any unlawful discrimination within the sector, but also whether any wider poor employment practices had a disproportionate impact on these groups and indicated broader systemic issues about how they access and experience engagement in Britain’s economy.


Dignity and respect

Fairness, dignity and respect are values we all share. Yet, a lack of these values being reflected in the treatment of workers was an underlying theme running through much of our evidence. Workers reported taking great pride in their work, but did not always feel they were afforded the same dignity and respect shown to others in the workplace. A significant number told us they are treated differently from and worse than others, harassed and abused. Workers spoke of being ‘invisible’ and ‘the lowest of the low’, as a result of treatment by their supervisors, the client and the public. Some clients prevented workers from using facilities, such as canteens, available to other employees.

Equality and non-discrimination at work

Most of the cleaning firms had equality policies, and in some cases offered equality training to staff, and we found little evidence of systemic unlawful discrimination. However, in some cases, migrant workers reported discriminatory treatment by their supervisors or colleagues. Although most pregnant women were treated well, some reported poor treatment or even being sacked or dismissed as a result of their pregnancy. Word of mouth recruitment is a commonly reported route into the sector, and this may leave employers at risk of indirect discrimination claims because employment opportunities are not open to all. In many cases recruitment practices have led to the informal segregation of the workforce by different nationalities, resulting in some workers feeling they were treated differently or excluded because they were not from the majority nationality. This was felt by British workers, European nationals and other foreign nationals with rights to work in the UK.

Cleaning firms and clients were concerned about their obligations around verifying employees’ right to work, given a workforce of diverse nationalities. A small number of workers said they felt discriminated against and targeted by employers for these checks because of their ethnicity rather than their nationality. Migrant workers also reported difficulties understanding basic employment documentation such as their contract, or their training.


Contract value determines what cleaning firms are able to pay workers, and low pay is prevalent across the sector with wages close to, or at, the National Minimum Wage. We found no evidence of systemic problems of unequal pay between women and men. In the leisure sector we found some evidence of piece rates, where workers had an hourly rate, but in practice it was dependent on cleaning a set number of rooms. This was often unrealistic in the set hours they were paid for and meant workers were paid less than the minimum wage.

A significant number of workers experienced problems with the under-payment or non-payment of wages. In some cases failure to resolve this led to Employment Tribunal cases. Unclear payslips exacerbated this as workers did not understand how pay was calculated and if they had been paid the correct amount. Some workers also did not receive the holiday or sick pay they were entitled to.

Access to redress

Most of the cleaning firms have grievance policies and procedures of some kind, enabling workers to raise concerns or grievances at work and have these addressed in an appropriate and timely manner, with access to support if needed. Workers could report concerns to supervisors, via confidential telephone helplines or staff surveys. However, our findings show that workers were often not aware of these procedures and did not know how to raise concerns. Many were scared of complaining in case they lost their job. Some workers reported they had been punished with extra work or worse duties for raising concerns, and a small number had been dismissed. Depending on the subject matter of the complaint, on whether or not it is made in public and in good faith and on the employment status of the worker, these penalties may constitute unlawful victimisation.

Working hours, breaks and leave

In some cases workers were told by their employer they were not entitled to holiday or sick leave, despite being permanent employees with consequent legal entitlement. Some workers felt pressurised into coming into work when they were sick, and a number reported problems taking leave; many were expected to arrange their own cover.

The majority of workers did not have excessive working hours. Most were permanently employed, working part-time for fewer than 30 hours a week. We did not find widespread use of zero hours contracts, except in in the hospitality and leisure sector where this is routine, despite workers having regular working hours.

Many workers complained about unrealistic workloads. Work intensification meant workers were often not able to take breaks or had to work additional hours without extra pay to cover the work, and this was a significant contributor to workplace stress. Clients often did not provide adequate facilities for workers to take breaks, such as rest rooms.

Freedom of association and collective bargaining

Workers have a legal right to join trade unions and participate in collective bargaining through trade unions negotiating employment conditions with employers. Our evidence showed low levels of trade union membership across the cleaning sector, except in public sector settings such as healthcare or transport, but we found no examples of outright prohibition on freedom of association and collective bargaining. However, we found a few examples of workers who alleged they had been discriminated against, or victimised, due to their membership of a trade union or similar organisation.

Forced labour

We found no obvious examples of workers forced to work against their will under threat of punishment, such as through the retention of documents, or threats of violence or denunciation to the authorities. However, the prevalence of the non-payment or under-payment of wages is a concern, and in systemic cases may be considered a sign of forced labour. Some workers perceived requests to work overtime as compulsory.

The impact of outsourcing 

Most organisations now outsource their cleaning to reduce their costs. This is clearly an organisational choice and does not necessarily lead to adverse impacts. However, we found that outsourcing and contracting can have a direct impact on employment practices and working conditions. Procurement decisions can often give great weight to lowest price, and this puts cleaning firms under enormous pressure to deliver a high quality service at the lowest cost possible. Cleaning firms often try to reduce their costs and improve their profit margins by reducing pay rates, increasing work intensity, reorganising work or creating a more flexible workforce. Short-term contracts that are renewed frequently fail to encourage positive relationships developing between clients and cleaning firms and can contribute to a decline in working conditions.

General Recommendations

To support the sector first to comply with legal responsibilities, and also to meet the standards set out in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, we are making recommendations to the key bodies in the cleaning industry. Our recommendations focus on the most significant findings, and address the need to:

  • Improve working conditions for cleaning operatives
  • Raise awareness of employment rights
  • Establish more responsible procurement practices.

Recommendations on Pay and holidays

Cleaning firms are legally required to ensure they pay employees at least the National Minimum Wage, including expenses, where applicable. It is good practice to clearly explain pay calculations, so payslips should be transparent and readily understood. In order to meet contractual liabilities to workers, payroll systems should be efficient, on time and accurate and payroll mistakes leading to the non-payment or under-payment of wages should be corrected promptly.

The living wage is an initiative increasingly supported by businesses and politicians. As a matter of good practice, we encourage clients to commission cleaning services at living wage rates and to monitor to ensure that cleaning operatives receive the payment.

In order to demonstrate legal compliance, cleaning firms should provide all their employees with clear information on entitlements to holiday pay, maternity pay and sick pay. Cleaning firms should explain clearly to all employees the processes for applying for leave, or informing an employer of sickness absence. These processes must be applied fairly to all employees, in order to avoid the risk of unlawful discrimination.

Responding to today’s (Wednesday) publication by the Equality and Human Rights Commission of The Invisible Workforce: Employment Practices in the Cleaning Sector TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: “This report shines a light on British businesses’ dirty secret – the appalling conditions faced by those who clean their offices and workplaces.

“Cleaners across Britain face poverty wages, job insecurity and a lack of respect from their employer. Many do not get their legal entitlements to holiday pay or the minimum wage, and tackling this injustice by speaking up and joining a union often results in further persecution.

“Agencies who employ cleaners – as well as the millions of businesses who use their services – have a duty of care to ensure cleaning staff are treated fairly. Living wage contracts are a great place to start.”