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Updates from the Living Wage Foundation

Cleaners need a new normal: it's time to pay them a real Living Wage

As Britain begins to walk the road to recovery from the pandemic, Tim Thorlby – Managing Director of ethical cleaning company Clean for Good – highlights that returning to ‘normal’ would be a disaster for cleaners who have long suffered low pay and exploitation in the sector.

First in and last out – that’s been the story of cleaners throughout the pandemic and for many years before it. The events of the past year have made crystal clear how much we, as a country, rely on key workers like cleaners. So, as the vaccines roll out and society looks to reopen, we must ensure the “new normal” doesn’t leave them behind. Fellow employers: the responsibility is in our hands. Low paid cleaners can’t afford to wait for the government to make the changes they need. It’s down to us. We must ensure all cleaners are paid a real Living Wage.

At Clean for Good, our mission is to bring fair pay and dignified work to the cleaning industry. Founded in 2017 as a social business, paying the real Living Wage (an independently calculated rate based upon the cost of living, £9.50 across the UK and £10.85 in London) was absolutely foundational to us. We’re part of a movement – now over 7,000 strong – of employers who voluntarily pay our staff more than the government’s minimum. Paying the Living Wage is, quite simply, the right thing to do. But the sector has got a long way to go: just 39% of the cleaning sector earn a real Living Wage.

In fact, as recent research by Focus on Labour Exploitation has sadly highlighted, our industry is one of the worst when it comes to the abuse and exploitation of the people who work in it. 61% of the workers they surveyed reported that they had experienced issues with pay. These included: not being paid for all hours worked (31%); not being paid at all (15%); and being paid less than the minimum wage (6%). At Clean for Good, we’ve hired people who were being paid as little as £3 an hour by their previous employer. For them, starting with us meant getting a 350% pay rise.

It is shameful that cleaners are routinely treated so poorly. It always has been. But the pandemic has underlined that, while it is a profoundly undervalued profession, cleaning is critical to our social infrastructure and public health. If cleaners don’t clean, people get sick – it is just over a year to the day that this universal truth was acknowledged and celebrated by the nation through the Clap for Heroes. While it was a great thing that people up and down the country came together to pay tribute to those risking their health to keep our society intact in its darkest hour, key workers like cleaners need more than clapping to pay their bills. They need a real Living Wage.

There’s no two ways about it: paying a Living Wage is the right thing to do. Cleaners make our hospitals, schools, supermarkets and offices safe for everybody else to use. It cannot be right that nearly two-thirds don’t earn enough to cover the cost of living. As new research by the Living Wage Foundation has shown, key workers paid below the Living Wage have missed out on an average of £900 since the pandemic began. That sum could have paid for a month of someone’s rent (based on the UK’s average of £725 per month), nearly four months of their food (averaging £56 per week), or ten months of bills for gas and electricity (£22.70 per week). Things need to change.

For us at Clean for Good, paying the Living Wage is about treating our employees with respect. It’s about showing that their work has dignity. It’s about saying that Black lives matter and women’s lives matter in an industry powered by women and Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic workers. As a business, we want to transform our industry. It has, for far too long, exploited cleaners instead of treating them with the respect they deserve.

This year, as a part of our ongoing efforts to recognise the often unseen work that key workers like cleaners do day-in-day-out, we’ve developed a brand new national poetry competition – Poetry for Good. Whether it is teachers or nurses, cleaners or couriers, carers or shopworkers, we want to celebrate the millions of people who, often on low pay, keep our nation going. Judged by three outstanding poets with cash prizes for the winning entries, the competition is open for submissions until April 9th.

With the vaccine programme going forward at pace, much of the country is understandably anxious to return to normal. But for low paid workers, going back to normal would be a poor way for us to say ‘thank you’. Surely we can do better than this?

After the second world war, they say there was a moment in which the welfare state became possible. This year there’s another one of those moments. This is the year to aspire higher, to have the biggest dreams about what could be done. Now is the time to eradicate low pay from our country – to lift millions of workers and their families out of poverty. Now is the time to start paying a real Living Wage.

8th April 2021
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