Economy "Cleaning should no longer be a profession in itself",...

“Cleaning should no longer be a profession in itself”, argue two teacher-researchers

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A RATP agent cleans the validation terminals in the Paris metro. – Ludovic Marin / AFP

  • People employed in cleaning trades have been highlighted by the Covid-19 crisis.
  • Often insecure, poorly paid and poorly trained, they see their professional future blocked.
  • Two researchers propose, in a book which has just been released, to review these professions in a radical way.

Like many others, they were among the workers who found themselves, despite themselves, on the “front line” in the face of the coronavirus. Women and men, especially women elsewhere (80% of the workforce), employed in cleaning trades have been brought to light with an epidemic that requires constant disinfection.

Service agents in schools or hospitals, cleaners passing through offices and public buildings, home helpers, etc. In total, around two million people (8% of jobs in France) work in professions in which cleaning represents everything or part of the tasks. Often precarious, exhausting jobs, with no prospect of development. It is to change this sad state of affairs that two teacher-researchers, Julie Valentin (University of Paris-I) and François-Xavier Devetter (University of Lille), published this Thursday a book * which aims to rethink in depth the conditions of cleaning trades. With this simple idea: nobody has to hold a broom all their life, and even all day.

Maintenance workers, mostly women, were among these “front line” workers highlighted by the Covid-19 crisis. Has their status changed over the past year?

Julie Valentin : There was nothing specific, neither salary increase, nor in terms of recognition. On the contrary, there has been an increase in the burdens and tasks to be carried out, for example for people working in colleges or lycées.

François-Xavier Devetter : Above all, the crisis has highlighted the importance of their work and the precariousness of these professions. Some, like home helpers, have had very complex situations to manage, having to work without equipment or training.

In your book, you explain that the arduousness of cleaning is largely ignored. Why ?

F.-X. D. : Their hardship is trivialized, in the sense that there is nothing “exceptional”. You don’t carry 50 kg of concrete, for example. Instead, you push a cart for hours or hold a broom. But these gestures, these postures, these tasks are both dangerous and painful, in particular because of the cleaning products used continuously. Several international studies show that cleaning employees have almost as many occupational skin and respiratory diseases as chemical workers.

J. V. : A very concrete example, based on a testimony: in a high school, with the ventilation logic linked to Covid-19, it was necessary to open and close 64 windows per day. Doing this every day is necessarily tiring, it leaves traces.

You also denounce the use of subcontractors, or outsourcing, often presented as a means of reducing costs. Why do you think this reasoning is biased?

J. V. : There is a very strong belief in the benefit of outsourcing. Many believe that a cleaning company has a real specialty, and will therefore be more efficient and productive. In fact, to save money, you often have to accept a drop in the quality of cleaning.

F.-X. D. : There is an apparent gain. But with outsourcing, part of the cost of the work is borne by the community.

J. V. : For example, the State, as an employer, does not benefit from the reduction in contributions from the private sector. So if he outsources his cleaning, he will make immediate savings. Except that by doing this, full-time jobs [de la fonction publique] turn into part-time jobs [dans le privé]. And since people are very poorly paid, they will need financial supplements [prime d’activité, par exemple], which will be taken from public finances. It is therefore an additional social cost.

An employee of an SNCF subcontractor cleans a TGV train.
An employee of an SNCF subcontractor cleans a TGV train. – Ludovic Marin / AFP

What are your avenues for upgrading the job of maintenance agent?

J. V. : If there is only one thing to remember, it is that there must no longer be a profession totally devoted to this. We must “despecialize”. Just cleaning up takes away any perspective because you don’t have time to learn. These professions should be rethought so that these tasks, which are a real stigma, are better shared. There are many ways to do this.

F.-X. D. : For example, by setting up a rotation. Like sharing household chores, everyone needs to get their hands dirty. In companies, that would imply that everyone, employees and managers, is cleaning. It has already started with the Covid, where we were able to ask everyone to clean their workspace.

J. V. : And to promote the idea that everyone should clean, we could integrate it into the working hours of employees, so that it does not lead to an additional burden.

F.-X. D. : Another possibility is to enrich the work of the person in charge of cleaning, by adding versatility. This already exists in some communities, with agents who are responsible for cleaning, but who can also provide hospitality or catering. Home helpers, too, are not just cleaners, since they have a set of tasks that go beyond simple home maintenance.

Should we also increase salaries?

F.-X. D. : It has to be done very quickly. This can take the form of an increase in hourly wages or a new way of counting working time.

J. V. : For many average employees, working time includes breaks and meetings. For cleaners, it starts when they hold their broom and stops when they put it down. Travel times to go from one company to another are not counted, for example.

F.-X. D. : In some professions, a half-day started is a paid half-day. Why not apply it to cleaning? Moreover, given the intensity and type of work, a full-time job of 35 hours is not tenable in these trades. It could be set at 28 hours, paid 35. Rethinking costs makes it possible to rethink the cost / benefit calculation of outsourcing and to rethink the time that these people can use to do training and have real professional trajectories.

* “Two million workers and dust: The future of cleaning jobs in a fair society” (Editions Les Petits Matins, published March 11, 2021, 17 euros, 155 p).

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