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On International Justice Day, it's time to change how we treat essential workers

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Changing the pay, conditions and status of the essential workers who have kept our country going during the crisis is essential.

On 15th June 1990, a group of Los Angeles janitors were beaten up by the police during a peaceful demonstration against their contractor.

Each year, unions and workers all over the world pay tribute to these brave workers by celebrating International Justice Day – a day on which we show solidarity with and appreciation for the cleaners and security guards that keep our workplaces and public, social and leisure spaces clean and safe.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the incident and comes in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis that has seen cleaners and security guards on the frontline in protecting us, often at great personal risk to themselves.

Cleaning and security can be dirty, unpleasant, or even dangerous even in normal times. During Covid they have become literally life-threatening.

The death rate from Covid-19 is highest for people in low-paid jobs and security guards in particular are more likely to die from Covid-19 than any other profession.

There has been an outpouring of gratitude for key workers during the height of the crisis, with weekly applause and other symbolic initiatives.

But this applause will ring hollow if its not followed by enduring changes to the pay, conditions and status of the essential workers who have kept our country going during the crisis. There are few sectors that need change more than cleaning and security.

As a new report by the TUC shows, low pay and insecurity are still rife in the sector. Security guards earn £2.98 an hour less than the median hourly pay and cleaners earn £3.98 less. Cleaners and security guards are at least twice as likely to be on zero hours contracts compared to the workforce as a whole.

Cleaning and security are also highly segregated by gender, ethnicity and age, which means that poor working conditions in the sector compound wider labour market inequalities. For example:

  • 80% of cleaners are women while 84% of security guards are men
  • 16% of cleaners and 26% of security guards are BAME workers, compared to 12% of the all workers
  • 47% of cleaners and 43% of security guards are over the age of 50, compared to 30% of all workers

Conditions in both sectors have been made worse by decades of outsourcing.

When services like cleaning and security are contracted out they are often awarded to the lowest cost bidder, with cost reductions passed on to the workforce in the form of lower pay, insecure contracts and work intensification.

Using data of cleaners and security guards employed in the private sector as a proxy for outsourcing, research by the TUC found that cleaners and security guards earn less in the private sector compared to the public sector – nearly £3 per hour less in the case of security guards – and that the overwhelming majority of zero hours contracts are in the private sector.

It is not just workers who suffer when services are contracted out, service quality often does too, as cost cutting leads to cutting corners, high staff turnover, low morale and loss of expertise.

Contracting out can also create barriers in the workplace, with outsourced workers perceived differently to those directly employed in the same workplace and marginalised or looked down on as a result.

It is time to put an end to this second class treatment and show proper appreciation for the enormous contribution that cleaners and security guards make to society, by giving them better pay and working conditions as well as dignity and respect. Justice for cleaners and security guards means:

  • Fair pay and decent contracts for all cleaners and security guards – including a £10 an hour minimum wage, an end to zero hours contracts, fair notice of shifts, a decent pension and reasonable rights to holiday, sick leave and sick pay.
  • Safe working and PPE – including full access to appropriate PPE and testing and published risk assessments.
  • Insourcing and responsible procurement to restore terms and conditions - a new approach to commissioning and public procurement that makes in-house provision the default and only contracts out when there is a demonstrable public interest case for doing so and in a way that enforces high service delivery and employment standards.
  • Recognition, dignity and respect for cleaners and security guards as key workers – the previous measures will go a long way to show our appreciation of their sacrifices during Covid. The best way to ensure continued dignity and respect after the clapping has stopped is to support cleaners and security guards’ ability to self-organise by ensuring access to workplaces for unions.

It has been thirty years since Los Angeles janitors were brutally attacked for fighting for their rights and cleaners and security guards around the world are still struggling for dignity, respect and decent pay and conditions.

There is a real opportunity for Covid-19 to mark a turning point in how we treat essential workers. By backing these demands, we can all help make sure it does.

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