Thursday, July 25, 2024

Cleaners come out from the shadows to mobilise

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After the European Parliament elections, cleaners’ fight for justice goes into the next round.

Cleaners come out from the shadows to mobilise
Cleaning the European Parliament during the pandemic—the crisis made cleaners much more visible (Alexandros Michailidis /

‘The EU’s ultra-liberal policies can even be found in Parliament’s toilets’ read the lead into a recent media investigation of cleaners’ abysmal working conditions in the European Parliament. The findings—including the fear of speaking to journalists—should not come as any surprise.

Despite the pandemic and labour shortages, public and private clients continue to view these workers merely as a cost rather than an essential investment in safe, clean and healthy workplaces. To make matters worse, governments and employers have blamed cleaners and their wage demands for inflation, despite the evidence that inflation has been driven by companies raking in super-profits.

Last year, following a European mobilisation of cleaners, a cross-party group of 56 members of the European Parliament sent a letter to the parliament’s president, Roberta Metsola, calling for daytime cleaning in Brussels and Strasbourg. As the newly elected parliament will have the highest presence of far-right and fascist parties since its inception, the fight for cleaners’ rights in the EU institutions and across Europe takes on a new significance.


After all, for many migrant workers, cleaning is a pathway into the labour market of their new host societies. Yet, rather than being integrated into an office with colleagues and social interactions, current working hours are a barrier to integration. A report, Working Against the Clock, published by the global union federation UNI Global Union, shows that for women and migrant workers night-time and shift work also increases the risk of physical violence, verbal abuse and harassment from the public (during commute) and abusive practices by employers.

Organisational power

As far-right and fascist parties will seek to use the European Parliament to divide workers based on nationality, the colour of their skin, religion, gender and sexual orientation, this could eventually get worse. The trade unions in the cleaning sector are however using their organisational and institutional power to counter such attacks and unite all workers. While cleaners remain at the whims of lowest-price procurement policies, multinational companies beholden to ‘shareholder value’ and increasingly anti-worker governments across Europe, broader economic and social trends present unions with the opportunity to advance the position of cleaners across labour markets.

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Before the pandemic, cleaners were not only invisible because they worked in offices, airports, slaughter houses, schools and universities in the early hours of the mornings or toward the end of the day. The media, academia and the political class also stylised them as a precariat without agency or power. The Covid-19 crisis changed all this. It underscored their critical role and governments labelled them ‘key’ or essential workers. The German word system-relevant’ used for cleaners goes to the heart of the matter: cleaners make our systems work.

At the same time, stagnant wages and wider demographic changes, twinned with the sector’s low investment in technology, have left cleaning plagued by some of the highest labour shortages across the European Union. UNI Europa’s EU-funded RETAIN project found that these shortages themselves increased staff turnover and workloads.

In the past, governments and employers had three options to counter such shortages: increase wages and improve working conditions, invest in technology or bring in more migrants. While governments across the EU are increasingly anti-immigrant, many—including Giorgia Meloni’s Italian administration—open the door to legal immigration to plug the gaps. However, facing a ‘productivity paradox’ (as investments in technology do not result in productivity increases), increasing wages and improving working conditions comes top of the agenda—if unions take up the challenge. While some governments and companies continue to believe that cutting corners, overloading workers and undermining their dignity will keep costs and headcounts low, others have shifted and are advocating improved public-procurement practices and daytime cleaning.

Significant progress

This has enabled trade unions to make significant progress in influencing governments, politicians and employers. In the last legislative period, UNI Europa built a coalition of unions, employers and policy-makers to put pro-worker procurement practices in cleaning and private security back on the agenda.

The campaign ‘No public contract without a collective agreement’ was supported by more than 170 MEPs. Moreover, the European commissioner for jobs and social rights, Nicolas Schmit, responded directly to the call of the parliament to revise the public-procurement directive. The recent conclusions of the Council of the EU on competition for public-procurement contracts take up the same concern.

In October 2022, the EU social partners in industrial cleaning, the EFCI and UNI Europa, signed a statement urging European institutions to adopt daytime cleaning and continuous shifts for cleaners. This was followed by another statement on public procurement and collective bargaining and launch of the European Daytime Cleaning Alliance.

At national level, the German minister of labour and social affairs, Hubertus Heil, announced last year the elimination of evening hours for cleaners in his ministry. He said: ‘I want to make this the standard in all federal ministries. Seeing who cleans up their own mess is good for everyone.’ In France, the current prime minister, Gabriel Attal, has also decided to give all cleaners working on his premises the option to work during the day. In Norway, the General Workers’ Union and the employers’ association NHO Service og Handel have launched a social-partner project on advancing daytime cleaning.

Europe-wide mobilisation

All these top-level initiatives within the EU institutions and at national level are however looking fragile. With a surging far-right committed to anti-worker and anti-immigrant policies, the advances of the last few years could easily slip away.

That is why later this year, UNI Europa, along with our Belgian affiliates, ACV-CSC, FGTB ABVV-CG, and our sister union EFFAT, will be organising a Europe-wide mobilisation of cleaners outside the European Parliament in Brussels. The demonstration will also be supported by CFDT Services (France), IG BAU (Germany), and FNV Schoonmaak (Netherlands).

As security guards and catering workers face similar concerns, we shall demonstrate together under the banner ‘Stop the race to the bottom’, to ensure that Europe’s newly elected politicians focus on those workers who make all other work possible. We shall hold the EU institutions to account and ensure that they are a role model when it comes to fair work, rather than a driver of precarity and poverty.

Mark Bergfeld is director of property services and care at UNI Europa, representing cleaners, security workers and private care. He holds a PhD from Queen Mary University of London.

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