Pressure continues to rise on pay rates, particularly here in London and the South East. It is becoming virtually impossible to recruit on the National Living Wage of £8.21. And yet, whilst on the one hand the Living Wage Foundation (LWF) wage of £10.45 (£9.00 outside London) adds more employers to its numbers, there is still a reluctance on behalf of many cleaning clients to even entertain the idea of their contractors paying above the legal minimum. This is particularly noticeable amongst foreign-owned companies in London, who do not grasp the idea of voluntarily paying above the legal minimum, rather like the way they do not always understand the concept of TUPE!
In defence of clients, it does not help that between the NLW and LWF there are so many ‘living wages’ – currently five if you include staff who are aged 18 or over. And this variation can also present challenges for contractors who employ staff working in the same building, but on different contracts. A cleaning operative in a communal area can be paid £8.21, whereas their colleague in a building tenant’s area can be on £10.45 – a massive 27% difference. Interestingly, I am hearing about contractors who will categorically not take on new work at less than LWF rates, which is a brave and laudable stance to take, although it raises the question of whether you have the discussion with the client before the tender to establish their commitment, or whether you submit the tender ‘blind,’ making your case within your proposal document. The problem is that our industry is so fragmented on the supply side. Wouldn’t it be encouraging if some of our industry’s very large players took a firm stance on this? At the end of the day, it is incumbent on the industry that employs the majority of the lowest paid workers to work the hardest to do something about it. I am not sure if, as an industry, we have ever worked well enough in unison to do that.
Maybe part of the answer is to factor in an element of realism. If, for argument’s sake, the government set a new, single living wage that everyone acknowledged was fair, wouldn’t it then be reasonable to manage its growth realistically, with increases limited purely to inflation? As contractors, we could price and plan contract costs more confidently, which clients would surely appreciate. We could also manage the differentials with higher paid staff within our companies more easily – another issue caused by the wide variety of rates now being paid.
But if harmonisation of ‘living’ wages still looks a long way off, like everyone else I am at least hoping for greater clarity and certainty when Brexit is resolved one way or the other. As any London contractor knows, 90+% of cleaning operatives are now foreign nationals, fuelled by the continued shunning of cleaning jobs by UK-born citizens in the capital. Uncertainty around longer-term immigration rules is already restricting the supply of staff for our industry and may do so further if any new skills or salary-based selection rules are applied to citizens of all countries and not just the EU. So, I wait with interest to see if the final Brexit outcome pushes up the ‘going rate’ for cleaning. If that happens, then like everyone else I will not be disappointed. It may initially prove difficult for industry clients to accept, and result in some difficult conversations, but ironically it may solve a problem that otherwise has no obvious solution. Cleaning could yet become a sustainable means of employment.