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31 May 2022

“They make fun of us”: Government cleaners respond to the Sue Gray report

Long treated with contempt, Whitehall cleaners have dealt with vomit, faeces and bloodstains.

By Harry Clarke-Ezzidio

Two days after Sue Gray identified the “unacceptable” ways in which cleaning and security staff were treated by officials during the rule-breaking parties at No 10, fellow workers turned up outside the gates of Downing Street looking for answers.

“The report concluded what we knew all along: that cleaners in Whitehall and beyond were being treated with contempt and serious disrespect,” Petros Elia, the head of United Voices of the World, a union representing outsourced cleaners at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), told the New Statesman. Members of the union and others gathered outside Downing Street on 27 May to respond to Gray’s discovery of “multiple examples of a lack of respect and poor treatment of security and cleaning staff”.

A Cabinet Office source and member of the Public and Commercial Services Union, which represents civil servants, also signalled to the New Statesman that it was time for a reckoning on the treatment of cleaners in government: “The Prime Minister’s apology is too little, too late. There’s been a culture of bullying, harassment and sexism in No 10 [towards cleaners and custodians] for many years.

“It was going on behind Theresa May’s back before he took office, yet he did nothing to address it. His empty words will be no consolation to the hard-working cleaners and security guards who have suffered under his leadership.” 

Some government cleaners, often provided by private contractors, are demanding full statutory sick pay and the London living wage. Despite the short notice, the demonstration on 27 May was vociferous: rousing speeches by campaigners were accompanied by sprawling banners and flag-waving, as well as drummed chants of “no justice, no peace”.

Yet a sense of loss underlined much of the anger towards the government that afternoon. Emanuel Gomes, a cleaner who worked in the MoJ, contracted and died of Covid-19 in April 2020. He didn’t have access to a sick-pay scheme, so felt he had no choice but to keep working, ultimately losing his life “in circumstances, we think, that were entirely avoidable”, said Elia.  

Gomes’s family is suing the government over his death, and the anger ignited by his loss was encapsulated in a banner that read: “They partied, workers died”.

Amid nationwide concerns over a lack of personal protective equipment, as well as adequate sick pay, for cleaning and security staff across the NHS, supermarkets, schools and other essential services at the beginning of the pandemic, such workers also felt fearful at the very heart of government. Many contractors providing cleaning staff do not offer guaranteed income provisions for sickness, meaning that should a worker fall ill (an increased risk, given their workplaces), they would have to rely on the government’s measly statutory sick pay, which was raised to £95.85 a week at the beginning of the pandemic (among the lowest rates in Europe). During the pandemic, this meant cleaners, security guards and other maintenance staff were “on a knife-edge”, forced to choose between going to work when unwell and losing income while ill or self-isolating at home.

[See also: “My job is to kill germs”: how the UK’s cleaners are being left to fight coronavirus alone]

“In the MoJ, we know cleaners [who had] to clean up vomit,” said Elia, adding that, in some cases, faeces and bloodstains were also dealt with by staff. “But they do that because that’s their job. And then to be looked down upon, to then be disrespected, to then get the minimum wage… and despite the physically arduous nature of their work – which often leads to injuries – they cannot afford to take a sick day.”

During the Tier 3 restrictions in London in December 2020, under which work Christmas parties and two or more people from different households gathering indoors were prohibited, a No 10 cleaner was faced with cleaning up “red wine spilled on one wall and on a number of boxes of photocopier paper” in the press office, according to Gray.

“People used to sleep off their hangovers in the buildings overnight on sofas, and in the mornings there were empty drinks on the desks that the cleaners had to pick up. There was a culture of boozing,” a Downing Street insider was quoted in the Times in January.

Photo by Harry Clarke-Ezzidio

In the public and the private sector, jobs in cleaning, security and catering, among other services, are often outsourced to specialist companies. The MoJ uses facilities management company OCS to clean its offices. (In No 10, however, the cleaning staff are civil servants rather than contracted workers.)

Cleaners at the MoJ employed by OCS went on a three-day strike over pay in 2018, demanding to be paid the London living wage, which was then £10.20 an hour (now £11.05), instead of the government minimum national “living” wage of the time, which was then £7.83 an hour (now £9.50). Their pay has since incrementally risen to about £10.85 an hour, although being paid the correct amount, and on time, remains an issue, according to staff.

A large part of the cleaning and security workforce is made up of people from minority backgrounds, who don’t have English as a first language – a factor many believe is taken advantage of by management.

“Many of us don’t speak English,” said Eduardo Veintemillas, a cleaner who previously worked at the MoJ. “They make fun of us and they mess us around. This is why many people let themselves be exploited and don’t speak out.”

Indeed, Gray noted that unspecified staff had witnessed or been subjected to behaviour they “had felt concerned about but at times felt unable to raise properly”. She called for a change in culture to encourage opportunities “for challenge and speaking up at all levels”.

The revelations about No 10 officials’ treatment of cleaning staff garnered much media attention and outrage on the report’s release on 25 May. It appeared to rattle No 10; Boris Johnson addressed it explicitly in his statement to the House of Commons, and made it known that he woke up early the next morning to apologise in person to cleaning and security staff on duty that day. “I don’t think even if Boris Johnson were to go, it would make the slightest bit of difference, quite frankly, to the [culture] that exists,” said Elia.

In the eyes of many involved in a dispute that has been running long before  Gray’s report, the status quo is likely to remain the same. “At work, how many times do people just ignore cleaners in the hallway at their jobs? Let alone care for their specific employment issues?” one protester remarked. “It goes way beyond the government.”

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