A South American cleaner who worked at Oxford Brookes University as a cleaner poses at the offices of Latin American Women's Rights Service in London on August 14, 2019.
A South American cleaner who worked at Oxford Brookes University at the Latin American Women's Rights Service in London © Tolga Akmen/FT

When Luciana Perlaza saw an advertisement promising to pay cleaners between £90 and £150 a day for work in Oxford over the summer of 2018, she thought it would solve her financial problems.

Instead, Ms Perlaza — not her real name — and two others found themselves in a group of 30 women working in what they said were gruelling conditions at Oxford Brookes University, deep cleaning apartments in student residences.

The flats had six bedrooms with en-suite bathrooms and took at least 15 hours to clean, with supervisors demanding the work be redone if they were not satisfied, according to Ms Perlaza. She added that each cleaner was paid £90 per flat, which over the many hours required to clean each one would amount to £6 or less per hour, below the national living wage — then £7.83 per hour.

“I feel that our rights were not respected,” said Ms Perlaza.

The allegations reinforce longstanding concerns that Britain’s often patchy enforcement of labour market rules fails to prevent serious abuse. The country has only one labour inspector per 20,000 workers; the International Labour Organization recommends one for every 10,000.

The Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, which oversees abuse in cleaning and other low-wage segments of the economy, has only 90 inspectors to cover the whole of the UK.

Charities say the cleaning industry, which employs about 700,000 people in the UK, is particularly hard to regulate because it is dominated by small employers and cleaners work in isolated conditions.

Lucila Granada, chief executive of Focus on Labour Exploitation, a charity combating labour abuse, said investigators often failed to spot the mistreatment of workers in cleaning and other service sectors. “Those cases often might be overlooked or may be missed,” she said.

Lucila Granada, head of the Latin American Women's Rights Service, which has been representing a lot of the cleaners.Latin American Women's Rights Service
Lucila Granada, chief executive of Focus on Labour Exploitation, a charity combating labour abuse © Anna Gordon/FT

When the group of cleaners arrived in Oxford they were initially so short of food and money that they rummaged through bins to find sustenance, said Ms Perlaza. They slept on their coats because the accommodation that came with the job lacked bedding.

About two weeks later she and some of the other women were transferred to another cleaning job at Kingston University on the outskirts of London. Ms Perlaza said she left about a week later because their employer, YBC Cleaning, was paying the same amount they paid in Oxford to clean larger flats in Kingston.

The cleaners’ case had caused concern even before they took the Oxford job. Ms Perlaza had asked Nahir de la Silva, a lawyer then working for the London-based Latin American Women’s Rights Service (Lawrs), whether she should take the job. Ms de la Silva warned her to avoid it and asked the GLAA, the labour watchdog, to intervene.

“I tried to explain [to the watchdog] . . . what were the indicators I was seeing, the risk I was seeing and the concern,” Ms de la Silva said, adding that it declined to take action.

She said that about a month later, two of the cleaners arrived at Lawrs’ offices to report on poor working conditions. “They said that they were working . . . from Sunday to Sunday — no breaks — and then the rooms were difficult to clean because they were very dirty,” she said, adding that the women appeared to have been working long hours.

The GLAA said it had referred YBC Cleaning to HM Revenue & Customs for potential breaches of minimum wage rules. However, it said it found no evidence of more serious labour abuse under the modern slavery act. HMRC declined to say what, if any, action it had taken.

Yogen Bahadur Chhetri, YBC Cleaning’s chief executive, insisted the company paid all employees the lawful minimum wage. He said the women would have been told to bring adequate food and bedding, although Ms Perlaza disputed this.

Mr Chhetri also said workers who could not work fast enough to earn the minimum wage at the per flat rate that YBC Cleaning offered were dismissed after being paid for the work they had already done.

“Nobody is going under the minimum — we add it up,” he said. “But we do not use them because they’re not doing the job the way we tell them.”

Niraj Paudel, YBC’s business manager, said the company had checked with all the subcontractors, agencies and suppliers that had been involved in the work in 2018 and that they had concluded any issues raised at the time had been resolved.

“We can categorically confirm that all our staff are paid the hourly living wage as per the period they worked,” Mr Paudel said.

Oxford Brookes said it was committed to ensuring fair working conditions for those employed by the university and third-party contractors.

Kingston University said Kingston University Services Company, its services unit, was committed to treating staff fairly and expected the same of contractors. The unit no longer worked with YBC Cleaning, it said.

Ms Granada said cases of labour abuse, including alleged non-payment or underpayment of women’s wages, were “very common”, even in publicly funded institutions. “They’re not specific to any sector,” she said.

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