During the lockdown, there was a cohort of workers who toiled through the night in what was described as a ‘fairly thankless job that is taken for granted day to day.’ Those workers were cleaners, who decontaminated buses and trains so that commuters could remain safe. We didn’t clap for them on our doorsteps, nor did they even receive the inadequate praise we gave to supermarket shelf stackers or lorry drivers.
It is telling that these workers were the subject of Professor Phil Banfield’s disdain earlier this week. The Head of the British Medical Association’s council appeared outraged that junior doctors – whose takeaway salaries average around £37,000 (not including a pension) – could in theory earn less than he pays his cleaner.
We’ve come to expect this kind of snobbery from certain sections of British society, which have a growing hostility towards the working classes and a mountain of self-righteousness. Of course, it shouldn’t surprise us that a militant union struggles to grasp the contribution cleaners make to our economy; we’d need a nationalised cleaning service for that. Only then, perhaps, would the likes of Banfield complain that the wages of our cleaners and housekeepers have fallen in real terms. According to the most recent ONS data, those working as cleaning and housekeeping managers and supervisors are earning on average £20,000 a year. Cleaners and domestics are earning less, at around £17,400 a year.
But we don’t have a British Cleaning Association, and their pay hasn’t been politicised. We don’t have a bidding war between politicians over who can shower frontline housekeepers with more praise. Their salaries are determined by supply and demand in the labour market – just as it should be in the NHS.
Cleaning is a big business. The annual revenue from the sector in the UK amounted to around £55 billion in 2018 – though this fell significantly during the pandemic.