Soon after Lucia arrived in the UK in 2017 from South America, she had what seemed like a lucky break. A woman she met at a hairdresser’s told her there was full-time work available for a company that provided cleaners at Donnington Manor Hotel, a four-star hotel in a Kent village an hour from central London.
Lucia — not her real name — would be paid only the UK’s minimum wage, now £8.21 an hour for 25-year-olds and over. But she says she was promised free accommodation and free food.
What followed, Lucia says, was a routine of working from 4am until 8pm, for seven days a week. A £300 fee was deducted each month from her pay for use of a bed in a three-person room in the hotel’s staff accommodation. Lucia says Betty Ferro, a Colombian-born woman who ran the agency that employed her, threatened to dock her pay if she did not work fast enough. When she injured herself at work, Lucia says, it took protests from colleagues before Ms Ferro allowed her off work to visit a doctor. Like many other people working in the sector, Lucia asked to remain anonymous.
Her account is far from an isolated one in the UK’s cleaning and hospitality industries. The majority of the complaints come from Latin American women, who form a high proportion of the workforce at many of the contract cleaners that keep shops, offices and hotels clean in London and south-east England, although numerous migrants from eastern Europe also report questionable treatment. Many of those concerned give strikingly similar accounts of struggling to secure even the modest wages they are due, facing frequently difficult workloads and sometimes harassment, bullying and health problems, such as skin complaints, from exposure to powerful cleaning fluids.
These stories about the treatment of staff at the cleaning companies working in Britain’s hospitality industry raise difficult questions about both the outsourcing sector and the capacity of the government to tackle abuse at work. While Britain’s unemployment rate of 3.9 per cent is low, critics say the relatively light protections offered to workers by European standards can leave them more vulnerable to mistreatment.
Emily Kenway, senior policy adviser to Focus on Labour Exploitation, a charity that seeks to combat labour abuse, says employers have little to fear if they indulge in such practices. Their foreign-born staff, who often do not speak English or understand their legal rights, are unlikely to raise the alarm, while the agencies meant to investigate such problems lack staff.
“No one is ever going to spot [these cases] because these people are not people that are going to complain,” Ms Kenway says. “Our labour inspectorate is so under-resourced that it’s not going to be able to go and look proactively at that.”
While managers downplay the extent of any mistreatment, Lucila Granada, director of the Latin American Women’s Rights Service, a London-based group that works with many cleaners, says it is striking how ubiquitous complaints of mistreatment are.
“Most of the women who come to our service are working in large, really fancy buildings or modern spaces where workers are working really under very different conditions,” Ms Granada says.
Some experts fear that Brexit could make the situation worse. Ian Waterfield, director of operations for the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority — the UK’s labour abuse regulator — warned in January that the end of free movement of EU citizens after Brexit, combined with the current low levels of unemployment, risked exacerbating problems of labour abuse.
Mr Waterfield queried whether unscrupulous employers might draw vulnerable people into abusive jobs if Brexit cut off the supply of overseas workers. “We’re alive to it,” he said.
Ms Kenway says some employers are already misleading vulnerable workers from EU countries into thinking they will lose their right to live in the UK if the employer dismisses them.
“Brexit is going to make a lot of workers more vulnerable to mistreatment,” Ms Kenway says.
At the heart of many of the complaints is the often haphazard cleaning sector, which employs 700,000 people and has expanded as companies and public sector organisations have shed the expense of directly employing cleaners in favour of outsourcing companies that promise lower costs.
Operators range in size from big public outsourcing companies such as Mitie, which attract relatively few complaints, to thousands of small operations, which often act as subcontractors.
Ms Ferro, 64, has supplied cleaning and other domestic staff to hotels for 25 years through various companies. Her main company, Maes Corporation, which employed Lucia at Donnington Manor, was put into insolvent liquidation, owing £187,047, in February. Inn Hotel Services, another company she runs, supplied workers to three properties in west London run by Seraphine Hotels, but lost the contract on April 21, according to Ronnie Cherian, the chain’s general manager. It also works with Aristel Hotels, owner of Donnington Manor, the Doubletree by Hilton Marble Arch in London and two other four-star hotels.
Cleaning up the labour market
£8.21 per hour
UK minimum wage for workers aged 25 and over. Based on a per-room rate, many cleaners’ hourly pay falls way below that figure
GLAA inspectors for the whole country. The UK has less than half the amount of inspectors recommended by the International Labour Organization
Estimated number of workers employed in the cleaning sector, according to the British Cleaning Council
Ms Ferro insists she is a considerate employer, once paying for private hospital care for one young woman who turned out to be in advanced pregnancy without knowing it. “I try to be doing my best for them and helping them with anything they need,” she says. Rather than being forced to work long hours, she says cleaners working for the agency were required to do only 36 hours a week.
But some of the staff who have worked for Ms Ferro paint a different picture about their experiences. Rowan Lozada Aguilera, a Venezuelan man who worked as a receptionist at the Doubletree by Hilton hotel in Marble Arch, says he and other staff routinely faced problems obtaining records such as payslips and claim that monthly pay was sometimes less than they expected.
“Of the people that I worked with, none of them were happy because they were having the same kinds of issues,” says Mr Lozada Aguilera. “Sometimes they were complaining that they were being underpaid.”
Lucia says that, by the time she left Donnington Manor after three months in October 2017, the strain of the work had left her feeling extensive physical pain. “The only time in the day when I didn’t feel pain was when I was having a shower,” she says, speaking through a translator. “But I worked there for the time that I did because I really, really needed the money.”
These accounts are part of a series of complaints made by overseas-born workers with various outsourced contractors that range from minor bullying to serious harassment including violence and withholding of pay.
Guadalupe Noristz, 63, from Ecuador, says it was a “shocking experience” to start work as a cleaner in London 13 years ago, having worked in Spain. Employers in Spain offered cleaners full-time jobs, while those in the UK expected them to piece together work from short shifts early in the morning and late at night, she says.
Ms Noristz is one of many cleaners to have arrived in the UK after jobs in mainland European countries dried up, especially in recent years. Like others, she has been forced to take on insecure work with only a few hours guaranteed each day. “In Spain, we used to work eight hours a day,” she says. “Here, I work two hours, three hours, part-time or full-time.”
The outsourcing companies in the cleaning sector insist that staff complaints stem from isolated oversights or misunderstandings. Some have introduced systems such as third-party operated phone lines where staff can make complaints about their treatment.
Eamonn Magee, managing director of Westgate Cleaning Services, a medium-sized cleaning company based in Bromley, south London, says it would not make any sense for his company to jeopardise relations with clients by failing to pay staff appropriately.
“Look at the job market,” Mr Magee says, to explain why it would be self-defeating deliberately to mistreat staff amid the UK’s current labour shortages. “You can walk out of a job in London and you would just get another job.”
Lucia says she stopped cleaning for Westgate at Istituto Marangoni, a fashion school in Shoreditch, east London, because she did not receive the pay she was due. After inquiries from the Financial Times, Westgate has established that two cheques it says it sent Lucia were never cashed and promised to reissue the payments.
Ms Ferro rejects allegations about the treatment of people working for her company and points out that most of those making claims insist on remaining anonymous. If they were telling the truth, they would reveal their names, she says.
“All the time when I visit the hotel, I pass around all the rooms where the people are working. I say, ‘Hello, how are you? Are you OK? Any problem?’”
Conversations with cleaners working in the sector suggest that the safeguards that some companies have introduced are far from universal and may be ineffective when staff are alone late at night or early in the morning with only their immediate managers.
Maria, from Colombia, says a man working for her employer Britannia Cleaning Services, heaped pressure on her and others to undertake extra, unnecessary work such as cleaning the walls every night at the London offices of Essence Global, part of the GroupM multinational advertising company. Maria — not her real name — says she endured months of overbearing pressure from the man to do the extra work before her employer banned him from Essence’s premises.
The episode made her anxious and prone to mood swings, Maria says. Essence says it is “very concerned” about the complaints and has initiated an investigation.
Maria’s complaint is one of many from cleaners about pressure to undertake far more work than can realistically be completed in the time for which they are being paid. In hotels, that often takes the form of being paid per room cleaned. Employers then calculate the cleaners’ hourly pay rate based on an unrealistically high number of rooms that can be completed in one hour.
Dalia Quinonez Guerrero, who worked for Ms Ferro’s company as a cleaner at the Doubletree by Hilton in Marble Arch, says she was “very disappointed” with her pay when she worked there last year because she had expected to receive the UK’s national minimum wage, which was then £7.83 an hour. Instead, she says she was paid £2.61 per room, with an instruction that she clean three rooms an hour, she says.
“It was impossible to clean three rooms in one hour,” she says, adding that she only ever managed two.
Ms Quinonez Guerrero says that, after growing frustrated with conditions there, she took up a new position working for Inn Hotel Services at theSeraphine Hammersmith Hotel. She says that her contract for that job promised her £1,200 a month, working 36 hours a week. However, because she was required to clean at least 20 rooms a day, it was never possible to do all the work in the hours for which she was paid.
Another woman, Isabella — not her real name — from Peru, says she received £3.20 per room cleaned at a prominent central london hotel. Since she also found it impossible to clean more than two rooms per hour, her hourly earnings fell well short of the minimum wage.
The cleaning company involved insists Isabella is mistaken about the level of pay and pace of work. But Isabella insists that her account is accurate and that she was eventually dismissed on a whim when a supervisor objected to a remark she made.
“She took away my key,” Isabella recalls. “She took away my uniform. So she didn’t let me come back.”
The Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority says it is “concerned” about such stories. But its chair Margaret Beels points out that the authority — which originally oversaw labour practices only in seasonal, food-related sectors such as agriculture, food processing and shellfish collecting — has had responsibility for overseeing cleaners only since May 2017.
“Cleaning is one of the areas that we are concerned about but it’s a new area to us in terms of gathering intelligence,” Ms Beels says. “We are starting to see information about the cleaning sector but we don’t have as comprehensive a view as we would have in other areas.”
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the Royal Society of Arts, who drew up a UK government report on the future of work, says the issue is partly a simple lack of funding for regulatory bodies. The GLAA has only 90 inspectors to cover the whole UK, for example, and the UK has fewer than half the ratio of labour inspectors to workers that the International Labour Organization, the UN’s labour body, recommends.
“There’s no question that we would improve the protection of workers and reduce the abuse of the law and abuse of people if we had more resources invested in these regulatory agencies,” Mr Taylor says.
Anup Sarin, director of operations for Aristel Hotels, says he is unaware of any complaints regarding treatment of staff on the company’s premises.
“We’ve not had any issues as far as cleaning is concerned,” Mr Sarin says.
Mr Cherian, general manager of the three Seraphine Hotels, says his company terminated Inn Hotel Services’ contract — under which it supplied around 150 staff to the three hotels — because the rooms were not being kept clean enough. He insists he never heard of any problems for staff working at the hotels through Ms Ferro’s company.
“I personally have not had a single complaint made to me about any grievance that any of her staff had whilst working for Betty,” Mr Cherian says.
Get alerts on UK employment when a new story is published