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Upholding cleaners’ rights in the face of COVID-19

While health and emergency service workers are rightly being recognised as vital frontline workers to the COVID-19 epidemic, in their shadows are another equally vital group: cleaners. Cleaners are often invisible, undervalued and, some of the most vulnerable to workplace exploitation in our country. Providing fair work conditions for cleaners is critical, allowing them to carry out the important work that they do to keep us and our communities safe and limit the spread of COVID-19.

What can stakeholders along the cleaning supply chain do to ensure that fair work conditions are in place? At minimum, cleaners need to be provided with:

  • high workplace health and safety standards, including adequate personal protection material, chemicals and supplies; 
  • sufficient hours to do their duties;
  • paid leave if they are unable to work due to being affected by COVID-19;
  • regular information about known coronavirus contamination in their workplace and about business decisions that affect their work and livelihood.

With the mounting invasive impact of COVID-19 and industry concern about the reported rise of questionable working conditions, CAF undertook a survey of cleaners who work at CAF-certified buildings. The survey touched on current issues around safety standards, workloads and job security. Understandably, there is a level of anxiety around exposure to COVID-19 with one cleaner saying, “Within my job I’m surrounded by a vast amount of strangers from all walks of life so I’m worried about being exposed to the virus because some people may not even be aware that they have [it].” 

Working conditions in CAF-certified building appear to be reasonably maintained, with far higher levels of compliance than what is being increasingly reported throughout the industry more broadly:

  • 94% feel that adequate precautions are being taken to protect their health and safety
  • 92% feel that their employer supplies them with enough personal protective equipment
  • 97% agree that they are supplied with enough chemicals and equipment
  • 84% are able to take paid sick leave if they become ill (this includes the responses of casuals)
  • 88% of respondents who say their workload has increased say that additional hours/staff have been added to compensate for this.

The results of the survey indicate that CAF certification offers cleaners substantial protection against unsafe working conditions. “This unprecedented situation has really pressure tested our certification scheme and our clients who are working hard to remain compliant and continue to uphold cleaners’ rights,” says CAF CEO, Poonam Datar. “While the survey results are reassuring, CAF is also currently undertaking a COVID-19 compliance check with each of our certified buildings and offering additional support and guidance.”

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Cleaners are potential economic victims 

The economic shutdown affecting the commercial office and retail sectors may have a significant effect on the demand for cleaning services, with cleaning contractors fearing contract suspension or reduced requirements, which will in turn impact on their ability to retain their staff. 

Cleaners are low-paid workers and often are on temporary work visas, hovering just above the poverty line. Migrant workers on temporary work visas are currently excluded from accessing social security provisions including the JobSeeker and JobKeeper payments, and Medicare, which are critical lifelines for workers whose livelihoods are already or are set to be impacted by the economic fallout of COVID-19.  This positions cleaners as prime candidates to become economic victims of the coronavirus pandemic. 

One cleaner at a CAF-certified building says that they “fear getting less shifts due to the lock down situation, being an international student and handling a family of 2 (my wife lost her job due to COVID19) I am anxious for paying my rent, bills etc. we are provided with enough PPE And taking good care of our health but this is another concerning point at this stage now. Another concern is due to lockdowns in India and banks closed, we are not able to get money from our family in India.” Another cleaner fears if they are stood down that their employer will not pay them, saying, “it’s not fair… how we will pay rent and everything.”

COVID-19: A human rights issue

There are links between the impacts of COVID-19 related shutdowns and modern slavery risk that stakeholders need to be aware of. Modern slavery experts Justine Nolan and Martijn Boersma note that supply chain workers can be left destitute when their work ceases, “needing to search for even more precarious work and exposing themselves to a greater risk of exploitation. … As work dries up, desperation among workers grows. In such circumstances working conditions can quickly deteriorate at the hands of unscrupulous employers.” Both up and down the cleaning supply chain, steps need to be taken to protect those who are most vulnerable from the economic impacts of COVID-19. The UN Global Compact advises businesses:

  • Respond with flexibility, compassion and solidarity to the impact on your employees and your business partners, especially small and medium-sized enterprises. Businesses’ efforts to limit financial impacts should not be made at the expense of workers’ rights and welfare.
  • Ensure a continuation of income with special attention to workers in precarious employment situations, such as low-paid workers, contractual workers and workers without any social protection coverage, which includes the cleaning workforce, the majority of which are on temporary work visas and do not have access to government income support.   
  • Current contracts should be honoured to the greatest extent possible. Engagement with suppliers is essential to ensure decent working conditions in supply chains while providing support for business continuity. 

In addition to the above advice, CAF has developed resources that provide additional guidance for cleaners, cleaning contractors and procurers of cleaning services. Taking these steps will ensure that we still have a cleaning industry when the COVID-19 crisis subsides. Doing so will also immeasurably reduce the harm caused by coronavirus to this important, yet economically precarious workforce. If you have any questions about the best practice approaches to upholding cleaners’ rights in your supply chain, please contact


Cleaning Accountability Framework Ltd.