A Review of the Cleaning Labour Market in 2022 & Post-Omicron
2021 was a turbulent year for the cleaning sector. While cleaning operatives worked tirelessly to keep thousands of workers safe through the pandemic – 2022 is set to be a challenging year for recruitment and retention in the cleaning sector.
Amidst increasing pressure to increase pay in the sector and reports of severe shortages of cleaning staff, we investigate what has changed and how businesses can protect themselves from the potential impact a shortage of cleaners would create.
The Context: The UK Faces Acute Labour Shortages
In July last year The Guardian cited that ‘Britain’s employers are struggling with the worst staff shortages since the late 1990s, amid the rush to reopen from lockdown and a sharp drop in overseas workers due to Covid and Brexit.” Raising an alarm for acute labour shortages ahead, accountancy practice, KPMG and the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC) reported that the number of available workers had plunged in 2020 and at the fastest rate since 1997.
In a sign of the growing pressure on companies, surveys from the British Chambers of Commerce published on Thursday showed 70% that had tried to hire staff in the three months to June had struggled to do so… Employment experts believe people are being put off from work in certain sectors that have developed reputations for low pay and poor conditions in recent years, and that concerns over continuing high rates of Covid-19 are also having an impact.
The two graphs above were taken from: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2021/jul/08/uk-employers-struggle-with-worst-labour-shortage-since-1997
Severe Staff Shortages in Cleaning Followed
The UK cleaning labour market makes up 5% of the national workforce and by October 2021, the cleaning sector, like logistics and hospitality, were reporting ‘severe’ staff shortages.
The British Cleaning Council (BCC) reported firms seeing record increases in vacancies, sometimes of 250% or more. According to BCC Chairman Jim Melvin:
During my entire career, I have rarely known it to be as hard to recruit cleaning and hygiene staff as it is now. Firms all across the sector cannot get the staff they need and given the triple effect of the Immigration Act, Brexit and the pandemic, it is arguably unprecedented… Many foreign workers have now left, and we can’t replace them by UK nationals, who traditionally have not joined the industry… Other staff are leaving for alternative jobs, such as driving HGVs or within other sectors that are actually receiving Government assistance. In the meantime, we are facing severe problems.
What Is Driving Cleaning Sector Staff Shortages?
1 | Up to 55% of The Cleaning Workforce is Currently Absent
This country’s cleaning sector relies heavily on overseas workers. Fact. BICS and Labour Force survey results vary, but on average, migrant workers are considered to account for at least one third of workers in cleaning, compared to just 17% across all sectors of the UK workforce. This figure rises to anywhere from 55 and 62% in London.
With immigration rules changing and the categorising of cleaning and hygiene staff as being exempt of skill in 2021, it became instantly much harder for UK commercial cleaning companies to recruit the staff they need. Paul Thrupp, chair of the BCC commented that even with increased automation helping with repetitive and monotonous tasks…”no amount of robotic scrubber-dryers, IoT-enabled soap dispensers or window cleaning drones will be able to replace the skills we are haemorrhaging.”
An estimated 1.3 million non-UK workers left the country during the pandemic, and this has inevitably created significant pressure on the cleaning sector. Paired with less desire to work in cleaning and facilities management roles, the shortage is palpable.
This is echoed by data from the Indeed study in association with Sky News which showed that Brexit is a factor: the number of jobseekers from the European Union has dropped by one third since the end of 2019.
And compounding the issue furthermore, UK nationals do not appear keen to take the roles left behind. Jim Melvin, Chair of the British Cleaning Council commented:
The industry has always voiced its very real concerns as to whether any shortfall in staff would result in an upsurge in UK nationals joining the industry for the simple reason that historically this has never been the case… We are very concerned that the recruitment issues in the sector may potentially hinder the nation’s recovery from the pandemic.”
With the end of the Government’s furlough scheme not causing the spike in unemployment that was predicted, both UK nationals and migrant workers now have more options than ever for jobs and pay and with that they are voting with their feet….
2 | Cleaning Isn’t Glamorous (Why Other Sectors May Provide Attractive Alternatives)
Cleaning roles are not known for being easy work, nor is it glamorous. With long unsociable hours and use of strong chemicals over long periods putting cleaner health at risk, increasingly, some are weighing up risks versus rewards. The pandemic has made everyone re-evaluate what is important and purpose, work life balance and fair pair are at the heart of everyone’s’ career decisions. Cleaners included.
In Q3 2021, Sky News conducted analysis of the jobs available before and after the pandemic struck. They found nearly a third of occupations now see less interest from jobseekers than before the pandemic. The largest decline has been in “cleaning and sanitation” and “loading and stocking”, according to the data analysed from Indeed.
Over the first half of this year, sectors that include cleaning jobs and those working in warehouses experienced similar labour shortages to driving, but they have not had the same bounce back in interest over recent months.
Historically there were many reasons why people choose cleaning as a career, but post pandemic, the game has changed, and the risks have been highlighted causing some to re-evaluate or even retire where able. And as people retire, we lose a wealth of experience and skills from the sector which isn’t being replaced.
Additionally, in a recent blog, we touched on the startling truth about cleaning work: in a ten year study of cleaning operatives, it was proven that the continued use of conventional chemical cleaning products over long periods mean cleaners are 58% more likely to develop lung cancer than the office working counterparts they serve.
With an abundant uptick in cleaning demand and more chemicals, this exposure and the risks associated grow ever more throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. Combine all this with a sudden change in people’s psychology around work and their purpose in life thanks to pandemic fear and anxiety and some working in the sector are simply deciding now is a great time to retire or change vocation. Whether it’s the work itself, the risks associated. the commuting, the rewards or lack thereof – or indeed the increased cost of living adding external pressures, more and more people are evaluating career changes.
Many other sectors are sectors typically offer more attractive packages to job seekers and even those sectors typically as behind the curve as cleaning (logistics, transport, hospitality and catering) have stepped up their game significantly already.
At the end of 2021, the average wage for a loading and stocking job was £11.00 per hr, 5.2% higher than it was at the start of the year. Despite this, and the increased status of cleaners during the pandemic – the average wage in cleaning roles had only increased 3.3%. It’s not uncommon in other sectors like logistics, transport or warehousing to see overnight pay rises of 20% to 30% and this makes it tempting.
The Indeed research clearly shows that while forklift drivers have seen a steady wage increase over the past few months, the average pay for caretakers remains unchanged. These rate changes may not be dramatic, but now more than ever – every penny probably counts…
3 | 2022 is ‘The Year of the Squeeze’ & Household Finances Are Extreme Under Pressure
UK households are tipped to take a significant financial hit next year as wages stagnate, but taxes and household bills rise sharply. From travel costs, to taxes and inflation, households have a raft of new costs to consider in the coming year, and 2.1 million households were already behind on their energy bills in 2020!
The Resolution Foundation (RF), who provide the Real Living Wage calculations annually, has said from next April, working families face an equivalent £1,200 decrease in their income per annum as new measures such as the increase in National Insurance (NI) contributions and the freeze on personal income tax allowances, combine unfavourably with high inflation rates. The freeze of personal tax allowance at £12,570 a year and the 12.5% increase in personal NIC’s is likely to cost the average household around £600 a year.
We’ve all read about the impact of the gas and electricity crisis, with suppliers warning that household bills could very reasonably increase to £2,000 pa (double last year’s cost). The poorest households could see the cost of gas and electricity alone rise from 8.5% to more than 12% of their earnings.
Meanwhile UK inflation hit its highest peak in a decade in late 2021, and it has been suggested it will rise further in 2022.
Real wages however had “almost certainly” started to fall, the RF reported, and they do not believe they will pick up again until the last quarter of 2022, meaning real living wage will be just 0.1% higher than it was at the start of the year.
RF predict that by 2024 real wages will be £740 pa lower than had the pre-pandemic pay growth been allowed to continue undisrupted. It’s a bitter pill to swallow when we consider cleaners are likely working harder and longer now than ever before…
4 | Vicious Circles: Less Workers = Harder Work
The pandemic brought with it numerous challenges, but the costliest factor businesses has been the toll caused by sickness, absence and productivity.
When you combine staff shortages with enforced and extended isolation for Covid sufferers, the problem becomes cyclical. People get sick, cannot work and others have to fill the void. Christmas 2021 was a prime example of how sickness only aggravates demand and pressure on those cleaners who can work. As Omicron hit London especially, up to a third of the workforce was isolating. This includes cleaners!
BCC Chairman Jim Melvin speaking in December 2021 said:
I fear the staff shortages our sector faces, combined with the growing threat from Coronavirus, could create a perfect storm which could add to the risk to the health of members of the public… The situation has been further exacerbated by employee absences due to the traditional winter ailments and parents also being forced to stay home to look after children who are self-isolating. It all comes at a crucial time in the nation’s fight against the pandemic, with infection rates increasing aligned to the new variant…
Meanwhile, as cleaner shortages mount, the situation for workers who remain in the industry may get tougher. While many customers want more cleaning visibility, not all are willing to pay for more hours or staff, this means the most loyal and committed staff bear the brunt. The United Voices of the World Union (UVW) carried out a survey late in 2021 asking its members how they had been affected by the labour shortages. More than half reported that their conditions had taken a turn for the worse and that they were struggling to do the work being demanded of them. If standards weren’t met however, the rate of complaints was (understandably) exponentially higher than pre-Covid. This increases the mental and physical pressures of the job significantly.
“UVW members have cleaned banks, offices, government buildings, hospitals and schools throughout the pandemic. They are real Covid heroes that have kept the economy afloat. Paying workers who have risked so much whilst serving society, £9-10 an hour is shameful. Increasing their workload and still paying them a poverty wage is abhorrent” said Petros Elio, the Co-Founder of the union.
He added that the experiences of UVW members exposes the divisions in our work and labour market. While many people in highly skilled jobs have accrued bargaining power with their superiors over working standards and remuneration, the situation for cleaning staff has become increasingly difficult.
Now more than ever our members demand and deserve dignity, respect and a real living wage.
5 Things You Can Do To Mitigate the Shortage of Quality Cleaning Staff
While your constraints on budget may vary, there are some simple things to consider when recruiting cleaning teams:
- Be realistic about the attractiveness of your vacancies: if your sites are remote and poorly connected by public transport, and/or you need night-time out of office hours cleaning schedules then you will probably find it harder to recruit and retain staff long term. Paying minimum wage simply doesn’t cut it anymore and you will need to invest more to get good, reliable staff.
- Improve perceptions of cleaning operatives and their contribution internally: cleaning is no longer a basic hygiene factor, it has become the bedrock of employee confidence and underpins 45% of people’s decision on whether they feel safe returning to public places and offices. If your organisation’s aim is to pay as little as possible for your cleaning services, expect the service to be average at best and disrupted. It’s likely however you don’t want or need an average service and the company providing it doesn’t either. By unblocking the communication and getting to the bottom of what everyone expects and needs, you should be able to justify increased investment in cleaning.
- Invest in your cleaning teams like you do with your internal people: they are increasingly important in keeping your organisation running. If you can, please pay them fairly with the Real Living Wage. It makes a HUGE difference to people’s lives and mental welfare. Loyal and properly rewarded cleaners will stay longer in their jobs and deliver a better service to you. Paying The Real Living Wage also acts as a distinct and highly desirable competitive advantage for jobseekers making them cheaper and quicker to fill.
- If you can’t pay Living Wage – ensure you reward people in other ways: many cleaners love their work and love looking after their customers properties as if they were their own. It’s not always about money or hourly wage. If budgetary constraints limit you, there is no excuse not to look for other ways to reward your cleaners. This might be in terms of benefits, support, training or even just including them on staff events, celebrations and sharing company successes. Small acts of gratitude can go a long way in low paid jobs.
- You get what you pay for – find the right balance and be prepared to flex: Pre-pandemic rules no longer apply. If you haven’t recently reviewed rates of pay for your cleaning and facilities staff, then now may be the time to do so. If you can only offer minimum wage and have roles that just aren’t being filled, you may have to adjust to the new normal or face disruption.