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Cleaners are still feeling the effects of the financial crisis

“They took it out on us. We knew they had the money.”

Just like any industry, banks are kept running by the security staff, the receptionists, the IT staff, the cleaners.

So what’s life like for them? We spoke to Alberto, who until 2010 was working as a cleaner at UBS in the City of London. He now works for CAIWU,  a union which supports cleaners, and hears the stories of cleaners every day.

“It was a crisis. What could we do?”

When the crisis happened, a lot of people were dismissed. The companies used the financial crisis as an excuse to implement the changes we have in our industry. They would say the clients don’t have money, so they needed to cut the numbers of cleaners in half. I was sacked because of strike activity.

At the time, people just said, “It’s a crisis. What can we do?” But we knew they had the money. It felt like it was an excuse. They were taking it out on us.

You used to just be responsible for one floor – changing the bins, cleaning the toilets, cleaning the floors. Now, in most companies the workers start from the top of the building and everybody comes down working together. Why? It saves them money if anyone is absent or on holiday. You still always have to get the same amount of work done, however many people are working. The most common illnesses in the cleaning industry are back pain and stress.

“Most cleaners are outsourced”

In 2008, Unite [the union] did a campaign to secure the London Living Wage for cleaners in the banks in central London and the Docklands. It was an amazing campaign, but the problem was that these companies know how to do business. They know how to keep a budget. Even if they’re paying staff more, they can just reduce the number of workers and increase the workloads. Workers are under a lot of pressure, and they’re working really hard.

Normally cleaners are employed by outsourced companies. When I worked for UBS I worked for Mitie and then that transferred to Interserve. You’re constantly switching between companies.

Sometimes a client might demand certain things of the cleaning company – like that cleaners are being paid the London Living Wage, or that there are a certain number of cleaners on shift. But unfortunately in my experience companies will normally choose a cleaning company which offers more ‘value for money’. That means less staff, lower wages and longer hours.

“Cleaners feel like they’re invisible”

As a cleaner, you come into contact with the people who work for the client a lot. Of course lots of people are nice. But it’s very common that people ignore us. If you see someone mopping a floor, it’s just politeness to step out the way, and let people get on with their job. A lot of the time we feel invisible. I recently spoke to a cleaner in a bank who was cleaning a men’s toilet who put a sign up asking people to use an alternative toilet but men just came and went to the toilet in front of her. Or sometimes a cleaner will be cleaning the floor on their knees and people will just step over them, and don’t say excuse me.”

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