A union is warning of rising job losses and poverty among cleaners in Britain, as employers brace for the wind-down of government furlough support later this year.
Wilson Ayala, chair of the Independent Workers' Union of Great Britain (IWGB)'s cleaning branch, told Yahoo Finance UK he was receiving up to 15 calls a day from members facing redundancy.
The government is widely expected to extend the government's coronavirus job retention scheme beyond its current 31 April cut-off at next week's Budget. But Ayala said it would be too late as workers were already receiving termination letters, and an extension alone would not stop many lay-offs.
The IWGB launched a "fair furlough now" campaign last week, backed by more than a dozen Labour MPs. It is demanding the furlough scheme is not only extended but also made compulsory in place of lay-offs, unless employers can prove it is not viable.
'I had to borrow to buy food'
IWGB member Sandra Meneses lost her 16-hours-a-week job with a London cleaning company in November, despite the furlough scheme having just been extended.
"The company didn't give me the support I deserved and needed in the chaos of the pandemic," she said. "They said I don't have the right."
The cleaner has another job in a nursery, but only earns the minimum wage and said it was not enough to live on in the capital, even on 41 hours a week.
"Now I have only one job, I had to borrow money from a friend to buy food, or to pay for transport," she said.
The 48-year-old needs to earn enough not only to get by, but also to send to Colombia for her ill mother and daughter, who has also lost her job.
Meneses said money worries and fears of contracting COVID-19 at work had left her suffering significant stress, and was even causing hair loss. "It's horrible, it lowers your self-esteem."
Job loss warning as furlough cut-off looms
Ayala said the number of member cleaners phoning him about similar job cuts had risen over the past month. The wider IWGB, which represents insecure and gig economy workers including private hire drivers and couriers, also reports a "tidal wave of cases relating to mass redundancies."
Ayala accused the government of again leaving decisions too late, with similar spikes in job cuts reported last March and October shortly before furlough measures were unveiled or extended. Current subsidies worth 80% of employee wages are due to end by May, unless chancellor Rishi Sunak extends help next week.
He said many workers cleaned hotels and hospitality venues which have been among the worst affected by the pandemic. "Lots of people find themselves without work, and companies are cutting hours. How do they live, pay debts, help their families?"
Some workers had been unable to pay their rent and forced to seek food from charities, he added.
A Treasury spokesperson said: ‘’We’ve invested more than £280bn [$392bn] throughout the pandemic to protect millions of jobs and businesses – and extended our self-employed and furlough schemes through to April so that people have certainty that help is in place.
“At the upcoming budget we’ll outline the next stages of our Plan for Jobs to support businesses and families across the UK. That has been our priority throughout the past year and it will be the priority for the year to come.”
WATCH: Labour calls for furlough scheme to be extended
'We're essential workers only in words, not help'
Ayala argues the pandemic has been particularly difficult for many cleaners, but their plight has been overlooked.
"Our manual labour is a very important part of the economy that's been forgotten. We've been considered essential workers but only in words, not with help," he said.
"We do work British people don't want to do. We generate and pay taxes. We are having to work during the pandemic and making ourselves ill."
Official figures suggest migrant workers make up more than half of London's cleaning workforce, and 95% of the IWGB cleaning branch's members are Latin American. Language barriers make many cleaners more vulnerable to exploitation, with much of Ayala's work simply pressuring employers to follow the law.
The IWGB saw "a lot" of cleaning staff accept fewer hours without fully realising what they were signing when COVID-19 first hit, according to Ayala. Some employers allegedly failed to compensate workers entitled to redundancy pay, and others to provide staff with personal protective equipment (PPE).
Meneses said her redundancy in November was not the first time her company had tried to let her go. She said her furlough payments had stopped earlier in the year, with the company reportedly giving no warning or written notice of redundancy. The cleaner was only reinstated after the IWGB intervened.
'Widespread unlawful practices' in cleaning
Problems in the cleaning industry appear to have been rife even before COVID-19 struck, however.
Low pay is common, averaging £16,387 a year, and not all workers even receive their stated pay.
A report by policy and campaign group Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX) last month highlighted a "concerning picture of widespread unlawful practices," with half the workers surveyed reporting underpayment of wages.
Reported issues include unrealistic workloads and deductions that left workers below the minimum wage, as well as non-payment of holiday and sick pay.
60% of workers interviewed both before and during the pandemic said they had faced financial problems, including struggles paying rent and bills and borrowing from family and friends.
"Fear of losing work can act as a major deterrent to reporting abuse," the report said. It argued competition for cleaning contracts and outsourcing saw pay squeezed or work intensified to maintain profit margins, compounded by Britain's "weak" system of inspecting and enforcing employment rights.
Ayala claimed outsourcing made workers "second or third class citizens," often with inferior terms and conditions versus in-house staff.
FLEX also noted the prevalence of part-time work and antisocial hours. Before Meneses lost her cleaning job, she worked up to 61 hours a week to earn enough to get by.
She said she used to get up at 5.30am, took three buses to her nursery job from 8am to 6pm, returned home for dinner and relaxed for "20 minutes." She then spent another 90 minutes on the bus to central London for an evening cleaning shift, arriving back home at around 1am.
"I only slept four hours," she said. "I earn very little, I work too much, I don't relax."
Migrants' hopes of a better life
It marks a bitter reality for Meneses and other migrants searching for a "better quality of life and work," as Ayala put it.
He said many Latin American workers in Britain had not only left their own countries, but also to give up on new lives in Spain as unemployment surged after the global financial crisis. Meneses fled drug-fuelled violence in Medellin in the 1990s, buying a house in Spain but then losing in during the recession.
Both agreed pay and conditions in Spain had been better before work dried up, and language makes life in Britain harder. Wilson said many IWGB members had academic qualifications, but long hours made it hard to learn English on the side.
Ayala, a former secondary school teacher from Ecuador, said tiredness after working up to 14 hours a day in two jobs meant he had had to abandon an English course himself.
He lost two cleaning jobs last year, but works part-time for the IWGB and takes inspiration from its successes. His branch has helped many workers secure back their jobs and uphold legal rights, and the wider union helped win a landmark gig economy legal case last week confirming Uber drivers are workers, not self-employed.
He is also grateful British unions at least have more freedom than in parts of South America, allowing the IWGB to rapidly unionise in multiple sectors since its launch in 2012. "I realise these are precious liberties."