Last week the UK Supreme Court made a landmark judgement ruling that drivers working for cab hailing app, Uber, should be entitled to basic workers rights. The ruling highlighted what’s been a defining feature of the post-financial crash economy – insecure, low-paid work. Whilst the economy did see employment go up, alongside the growth in permanent jobs there was also a rapid rise in the numbers of self-employed, temporary work and zero-hour contracts where employers have no obligation to provide a minimum number of working hours.
The so called ‘gig’ or ‘platform’ economy is now a regular feature of our lives, operating far beyond the well-known examples of businesses like Uber and the Deliveroo. The fragmentating of the workforce alongside the corresponding exploitation and insecurity this entails has become a common feature across sectors from social care to retail. Many of the key-workers who have kept the country going through the pandemic have been in some form of insecure work.
One sector where job insecurity is common is in the cleaning industry. Cleaners are a vital backbone of the economy doing an incredibly important job, but the cleaning industry is characterised by low-pay, exploitation and extreme precarity. A report published last month by Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX) based on in-depth interviews with cleaners found that 61% of participants experienced severe issues with pay including not being paid for all hours worked, not being paid at all, or being paid below the government’s minimum wage. 60% experienced dangerous working conditions, 21% felt unable to take time off when ill, and sexual harassment was cited as a frequent issue compounded by insecure working arrangements and unequal power dynamics.
There are over 342,000 people working in general building cleaning in the UK and the industry contributes around £5.6 billion to the UK. Why then is exploitation inherent within the sector? One key feature identified in the report is the prevalence of outsourcing in driving risk factors for workers. Outsourcing of Cleaning Services is common and client companies wishing to drive down costs puts downward pressure on wages. The desire to lower costs also manifests itself in the types of contracts offered to workers – many are not classed as employees but rather as temporary workers, agency workers or workers on zero-hour contracts. This effectively means that staff have minimum employment protections with no access to maternity leave, protection against unfair dismissal or time off during emergencies. Those categorised as self-employed have even fewer rights. The fragmented nature of the workforce, with many working across different sites, makes it incredibly hard to unionise and fight for better conditions.
Low pay combines with the vulnerable status of many in the workforce to make it even harder to hold employers accountable. 81% of cleaners are women and 15% are from ethnic minorities with that figure rising to 42% in London. Given the power imbalances in play its little surprise that exploitation is common leading to sexual harassment and the use of immigration statuses as a means to prevent workers seeking justice.
How then can we shift this model, ensure decent wages, empower staff and recognise cleaners huge contribution to society, putting an end to the low pay and poverty that is too characteristic of the sector? As ever social enterprises are offering an alternative model – one that puts good working conditions and wages at its heart.
Tarem Services are a social enterprise based in London whose mission is to tackle in work poverty and it does this by doing the opposite of what is common practice in the industry. Prior to the Covid-19 Pandemic, Tarem Services employed 110 members of staff, working across 85 different sites. They are an accredited London Living Wage employer with more than 80% of its cleaning and support service contracts paying the Living Wage. Given the competition and pressures in the sector, where there are shortages in contractual negotiations staff are also supported through Tarem’s model of employee ownership of the business.
Whereas a major feature of the cleaning industry is the powerlessness of workers to fight for better terms and conditions, Tarem is effectively owned by its staff with all employees receiving shares in the business after six months of employment. This gives them access to annual dividends. Every employee also receives a monthly percentage of the profit share for the contracts that they work on.
As well as taking on low pay and empowering employees, Tarem also invest at least 8% of its annual income back to its staff and the communities it works with, often working with clients to increase their own social value.
What Tarem is doing is showing how a social enterprise can work in an extremely competitive market but offer an alternative model to how that market works. It is a business built around its staff and it is having a transformational impact on the people who work there. Take the story of Jenny Ramsamy, who works on a cleaning project on the London Living Wage at a school in the capital.
Jenny, a mother of three from Brockley in South London knows all about the precarity of work withing the cleaning industry. Over 6 years ago, she was forced to give up her job as a Chambermaid cleaning bedrooms and bathrooms due to her childcare commitments. What followed was three frustrating years on benefits categorised by a feeling that she would never again be able to be financially independent.
In 2014, Jenny came across a vacancy online with Tarem Services and found the courage to apply. She was invited for an interview and made a very good impression being offered a job on the same day working at Heber Primary School. Jenny was given the opportunity to prove herself and has since been given more responsibilities at the school where she works. She’s passionate about her job and hasn’t looked back since. In addition, this encouraged Jenny to introduce family members and friends to her employer and as a result they are also employed by Tarem Services.
Commenting on her work, Jenny said; “Tarem Services have always treated me and other staff members like family. Since joining the company, I was able to come off benefits and they gave me the opportunity to build up my confidence, manage a team and move on from a difficult situation. As a mother, it means a lot to me that my employer has always been flexible because it hasn’t been an easy journey balancing work with family commitments.
When I did not believe in myself, Tarem did. They have always been there for me. I feel valued and there are so many benefits working for an employer like Tarem, especially within the cleaning industry. A good example is when I received some free everyday essentials before Christmas in December. I appreciate these things because they go a long way.
Another benefit is the profit share I receive each month as well, which makes a big difference to my pay. And with the pay rise I receive every year; all this puts me in a better position to save some money every month. I can only say, I am very happy and proud to work for a company like Tarem Services.”
Being a sector based around the upkeep of offices and other places of work, COVID did hit Tarem Services hard as 43% of the social enterprise’s clients have not returned to work, impacting the ability of its staff to go to work. 57% of the cleaners Tarem employs are currently furloughed.
In spite of the challenges imposed by the pandemic, Tarem has continued to put the welfare of staff at the forefront of its work. Over the festive period, as the country entered this current lockdown, Tarem sent out ‘claim your essentials’ packs to its employees containing toiletries and other essentials to ease the financial burden experienced by workers over Christmas. The scheme proved to be so popular they have decided to offer the essential packs every 2 months. It has also been there to offer help and advice to employees.
Beyond being a business built around the needs of employees, Tarem Services is also committed to having a positive impact on the communities it works in. Through Social Enterprise UK’s Buy Social Corporate Challenge, it has been running pest control services to digital giant SAP’s sites through their Tier one contractor ISS in Feltnam and Maidenhead. As the result of this partnership, some of the profit from the contract was donated to a local foodbank, helping support over 160 people who rely on it for essentials.
Tarem may be just one business working within a wider industry of low-pay and exploitative conditions, but its existence shows that even a sector as fragmented and complex as the cleaning industry can be transformed through social enterprise.