28th Sep 2023

Cleaning workers urge Parliament: 'Europe should lead by example'

  • "We need to introduce daytime cleaning now so that cleaners can be normal citizens rather than invisible," Mark Bergfeld said. (Photo: Paula Soler)
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Cleaners demonstrated in front of the European Parliament, fed up with night shifts, not feeling safe at work, not getting enough sleep and the difficulty of juggling their working hours with their personal lives.

On Wednesday (June 7), trade unions and workers from Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark and more, gathered in front of the European Parliament to demand better working conditions in the cleaning industry.

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To the rhythm of Bob Marley's song "Get up stand up", demonstrators chanted "Justice for cleaners", "Respect for cleaners", and "when we fight, we win".

During the demonstration they handed out yellow fists symbolising the gloves of the cleaners who had gathered there.

Indra is from Indonesia but works in the Netherlands, from where he came by bus with other colleagues who also work in the cleaning industry.

"We do our best as workers, but we are not always well paid," he told EUobserver.

On the same bus was Jeanne, who said she had come to support her colleagues to demand minimum wages and an end to abusive employers.

Faced with a cost of living crisis and rising revenues for companies in the sector, unions and workers have been demanding living wages.

From 2014 to 2018 alone, turnover increased from €95.6 billion to €129.7 billion.

Worker demands go beyond better pay. The sector has called on European institutions to "lead by example" and introduce daytime cleaning for their offices.

According to a survey commissioned by UNI Europa, the European trade union for service workers, seven out of ten cleaners who work non-day shifts do so because they have no alternative or because of economic pressure.

"Non-day shifts often come with higher wages, making them a necessity for workers struggling to make ends meet," UNI Global Union said in a press release.

Other alarming data from the survey stand out. Almost 70 percent of night workers and around half of early morning workers said they did not get enough sleep.

In addition, almost half of female cleaners said they did not feel safe during their shifts, and a significant number said they had experienced harassment at work and during their commute.

The cleaning sector in Europe is female-dominated and largely made up of migrant workers.

In fact, according to the European Labour Authority's (ELA) analysis, it is one of the occupations where most European countries report a surplus, meaning there is no shortage of cleaners.

ELA, based in Bratislava, suggests that cleaning jobs might not be attractive to domestic workers, leading to an overrepresentation of migrant workers in the industry.

Split, early or night shifts also prevent these workers from looking after their families and doing household chores.

"We need to introduce daytime cleaning now, so that cleaners can be normal citizens rather than invisible," Mark Bergfeld, director of property services at UNI Europa, told EUobserver.

In Germany, labour and social affairs minister Hubertus Heil has announced that his ministry will no longer work in the evenings, and there is an alliance for daytime cleaning in Berlin, where schools have moved their cleaners to the same hours as teachers and pupils to promote greater social integration.

"I want to make this the standard in all federal ministries. Seeing who cleans up their own mess is good for everyone," Heil said after the announcement.

Last but not least, UNI Europa is calling for public contracts that respect collective agreements.

"Politicians, governments and public authorities should not finance a race to the bottom," Bergfeld said.

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