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“My job is to kill germs”: how the UK's cleaners are being left to fight coronavirus alone

Some of the most vital workers during a pandemic are also, due to a lack of support, the most vulnerable.

Door handles, kitchens, toilets, desks, keyboards, surgeries, hospital wards. Lifts, restaurant tables, alcoves, platforms and concourses. The floor beneath our feet, the bannisters that steady us. Supermarket aisles, stock rooms and changing rooms.

The public takes for granted that the mundane items and spaces of our everyday life are kept clean. Now, as coronavirus spreads across the UK, the almost invisible army of cleaners who do this work are finding themselves impossibly compromised.

Low-paid, outsourced and often working on part-time, casual contracts, cleaners are concerned that not only do they face exposure to the coronavirus, but that they won't be able to stop working if they fall ill or need to self-isolate.

Cleaning companies, from small service agencies to big government contractors, are not giving their workers the clarity, or necessary pay, to incentivise them to take time off if they are exposed to the virus.

“They tell me if they feel ill they will still go to work because they can’t afford not to,” says Maria Gonzalez-Merello, an employment barrister who first worked as a cleaner when she came to London from Spain in 1994, and who now fights for cleaners’ employment rights.

“When they report to their employer that they’re not feeling well, either they’re being ignored or they’ve been told, ‘Ok, stay at home, you won’t get paid’, and their shifts for the next few days are completely deleted and given to someone else who is willing to do it.”

Although the government has extended statutory sick pay to be paid from day one of sick leave, and for those self-isolating without symptoms, this is still only £94.25 per week, and it is only available to those earning at least £118 a week.

Lower-paid workers on part-time or zero-hours contracts and self-employed workers who don’t qualify have limited options.

The first is to claim Employment and Support Allowance – a benefit tweaked by the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, in last week’s Budget to be available from day one rather than the usual day eight. But this is still dependent on earning at least £118 a week.

The other option is to claim Universal Credit. Sunak's Budget also removed the minimum income floor for this to make it easier for self-employed workers in particular to receive higher payments. However, it did not change the fact that the wait for a first Universal Credit payment is at least five weeks.

This means many cleaners feel unable to take time off, even if they should. The consequence of this is that in workplaces such as hospitals and GP surgeries, where vulnerable people are exposed, people who should be self-isolating may have no choice but to attend.

“I’m very worried because if I need to take some time off, how am I supposed to pay my bills, pay my rent, pay everything?” asks Maria*, a 45-year-old hospital cleaner who moved from Portugal to the UK in 1997, living with her partner and two daughters in their twenties. (She does not want to name the big government contractor she works for, or the south London hospital where she cleans, for fear of losing her job.)

Maria is entitled to statutory sick pay. But when she previously took sick leave for an arm injury, statutory sick pay was so difficult to live on that she had to return to work after six days without recovering. Her arm is still injured.

Paid £10.55 an hour, working Monday to Friday from 7.30am to 3pm, Maria cleans the wards every day and is in contact with patients “all the time”. A few weeks ago, she began feeling unwell. “My whole body was hurting,” she told me. She told her supervisor, but he did not send her home; she felt she had to go into work.

“I feel scared,” she tells me. “I see the news, and I don’t know if I go in the morning that I will come back with the virus.”

***

In St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, northwest London, Alfredo*, a 41-year-old hospital cleaner is “very worried” about infecting his family. He lives with his wife and two children, aged 25 and 15, in Brixton, south London.

Originally from Ecuador, he moved to the UK eight years ago after 20 years working in Spain. “I feel like it’s a huge risk working where I am especially as this virus is dangerous and can be contracted easily,” he says, through a translator.

Working for the government contractor Sodexo, Alfredo is currently paid the minimum wage (although his pay is set to rise to £11.38 an hour from 1 April following union action) for 30 hours a week, and his usual timetable is 5-10am or 4-6pm shifts Monday to Friday. He feels he is “being exploited”, and although he has paid holiday, he has not been able to afford visiting his family in Ecuador for five years.

“Obviously I have to be professional and forget about it [the risk of contracting coronavirus] because as dangerous as it may be, the reality is that I won’t get paid and I won’t be able to provide for my family if I take days off. I have to forget about it and continue my work as usual, regardless of the outside situation.”

Sodexo spokesperson said: “Patient safety is our top priority for our cleaning contracts in hospitals. We have clear infection control policies and procedures in place. We do not expect staff who are unwell to come to work and staff suspected of being unwell are kept from any contact with patients or sent home.

“All our hospital staff are entitled to sick pay from day one. When we inherit staff on contracts where they were not entitled to sick pay, we transfer them onto our terms and conditions, which are regularly reviewed. All staff are being sent a letter to clarify the position around sick pay. It is also being communicated to staff directly at team meetings at the start of each shift.”

The Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, which St Mary's is part of, has not responded to a request for comment.

Most cleaners I speak to fear living on statutory sick pay alone almost as much as the virus itself.

“Our members cannot afford to self-isolate on £18 a day,” says Lola McEvoy, a GMB union organiser for the NHS. “We need proper leadership from government to ensure that all those who are vital to stopping the spread of covid-19 aren’t financially penalised for doing so.”

The problem is not confined to cleaners in the health service. At a central London branch of Topshop, Luis*, 44, works Monday to Saturday every morning from 7-9.30am mopping, clearing rubbish and washing bathrooms at the store for the minimum wage: £8.21 per hour.

Having moved from Spain to the UK in 2014 and settled in Norwood, south London, he lives next door to his elderly parents. None speak English fluently.

“I need to get paid, coronavirus or not, it won’t stop me from going to work each day, so long as I’m not infected, of course,” he tells me, through a translator. “I’m concerned that my managers would not let me know if there were cases [in the shop]. The last thing I’d like to do is infect my parents. It worries me.”

Luis is particularly concerned because when he previously fell ill – he had bronchitis for a month – he was left unpaid. “They discounted the hours I was meant to be working, in effect taking hours off me,” he claims.

“Unfortunately my job is so insecure that I’m unsure they’ll pay me [for time off during coronavirus], seeing as they didn’t last time I was sick.”

At the time of writing, Topshop had not responded to a request for comment.

Rosa*, 49, has cleaned the Sony Pictures Entertainment buildings in Piccadilly Circus, central London, for 12 years. She is paid £10.55 an hour for two hours each evening, and as a part-timer, she isn’t eligible for statutory sick pay. She is employed by Total Support Services.

Rosa lives in Brixton with her two sons, aged 19 and 12. Her son translates that she wants “to stay at home but they [Total Support Services] said they won’t pay her, and obviously she has a family to look after, so she has to go in”.

Every day she feels afraid that “at any moment I could start showing up with symptoms”, as “people who work there go on business trips and to a lot of different places, and I’m the one that cleans”.

A couple of weeks ago, Rosa's supervisors told her to disinfect an entire floor – all desks, keyboards, telephones – of one of the buildings, without explaining why. She was given a mask, gloves and a pair of one-litre bottles of disinfectant.

She was told that if she refused to clean, she wouldn’t be paid. “I was concerned because no one was working there the after that incident,” she told me. “They didn’t ask for my consent. I’m not a professional cleaner, I’m not qualified to sterilise an area, I don’t have all the right equipment and I don’t know how to use it.”

Supervisors refused to answer her questions about coronavirus in the building, she claims.

“They’re treating the cleaners as if they are the lowest people in the company, like pawns, just throwing them out onto the battlefield.”

Sony Pictures Entertainment says it has had no confirmed cases of Covid-19 in its London building. Total Support Services has not yet responded to a request for comment.

***

As well as the unsustainable level of statutory sick pay, there appears to be a lack of communication from cleaning company managers with their workers.

One cleaner at a GP surgery near Liverpool Street Station in central London who I spoke to on the morning of 16 March was not aware that her employer, NHS Property Services (a company owned by the Department of Health, with 4,500 frontline workers in the health service, 3,000 of whom are cleaners) was offering full pay for those taking time off for coronavirus.

Paid the minimum wage, and cleaning the surgery from 7-10pm Monday to Friday, Valentina* told me she hadn’t received advice about the virus or sick leave. Originally from Colombia, and a Spanish citizen who began working in the UK six years ago, the 39-year-old lives in Hackney with her three children, aged 15, 11 and one. We speak through a translator.

“I feel unsafe,” she told me. “Everyone is going to the GP, obviously, because they are sick, and I’m afraid of all those things – I work with people in the clinics, the patients, plus the doctors; I work with everyone around me.”

She was also worried about the “quality” of her cleaning products, saying they are “cheap” and that she even had to source her own gloves for cleaning.

On 18 March, NHS Property Services provided me with communications they had sent out in email and letter form to workers updating them with regular advice about coronavirus since January, also translating their letters where necessary.

Indeed, on 9 March, its HR team sent an all-staff update outlining the pay policy:

“If you have been asked to self-isolate and are not symptomatic you can work from home as agreed with your line manager, however, if you are unable to work from home you will be paid your normal salary during this time, it will not be recorded against your sickness entitlement. For those of you who receive statutory sick pay (SSP), we will also be paying you your normal salary.”

An NHS Property Services spokesperson said:

“Our messaging has been consistent and clear to staff: ‘If you fall into these [at risk] groups you must follow the Government guidance. If this means you are not able to attend work, and you are unable to fulfil your duties at home, please be assured you will be paid as usual for your contractual hours. Your sickness record will not be impacted.’”

Nevertheless, Valentina tells me she still hasn’t received this information.

NHS Property Services also told me it procures cleaning products “recommended to provide effective cleaning results in healthcare settings”, in line with the British Institute of Cleaning Science guidance and the National Specifications for Cleanliness in NHS, and “all appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) is provided to our frontline colleagues whatever their role”.

***

Company policies have been changing fast, which leads to confusion. Katy Rojas, 48, from Brixton, who has been working for four years as a cleaner at the Crown Estate offices in St James’s Market, London, told me on 13 March that she and her colleagues were “scared” of taking time off.

“I don’t want to contaminate anyone because that is the purpose of my job, you know? Kill the germs, and keep the health and safety for the people.”

She is paid the London living wage of £10.75 an hour and works 8am-5pm Monday to Friday. Last time she took time off sick – six weeks for depression and anxiety – she ended up £700 in debt. “If you’re sick, you are paid minimum sick pay,” she told me, which isn’t enough to pay rent.

“Most of us don’t have money in the bank or savings or anything like that because it’s not enough money, and most of us are foreign and we need to help family and sometimes send presents.” (Rojas herself is originally from Ecuador, and moved to the UK 18 years ago.)

I approached her cleaning company, Principle Clean, on 18 March for comment. The following day, a spokesperson informed me that “all our staff employed at the Crown Estate will receive full pay should they be sick or self-isolating”.

Shortly afterwards, Rojas received a memo from the company announcing this policy. 

A Crown Estate spokesperson said:

“We are working closely with our staff onsite, including those employed across our wider supply chain, to ensure we can look after our teams and minimise disruption wherever possible, through this difficult situation.

“This includes a commitment to continue to pay cleaning and facilities teams that are employed either directly by us or by our service providers, in full, throughout the period of disruption, and we’re working through the details of this approach with individual contractors.”

***

A dangerous cocktail of confusion, poor communication and exploitation is compromising Britain’s cleaners: some of the most vulnerable, and most valuable, workers in a pandemic situation.

“More should be done to make sure the government’s new measures translate into these workers’ lives, and reach the groups that most need it, because other people have choices but they [cleaners] unfortunately don’t,” says the barrister Maria Gonzalez-Merello.

“It’s ironic. They’re cleaning everything, disinfecting the city, working for very little money, and they’re invisible,” she says. “But they can be subject to this virus as we can all be, and they have to be protected. It’s time for the companies and government to stop thinking about profits and losses and start putting humans first.”

*Names have been changed on request of anonymity.

With thanks to David Kiely for translation.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.