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'Modern-day slavery': Meet the migrants that clean London by night

London, UK – From Monday to Friday between 9 and 11pm, Ramona* works at an office building near Finsbury Square, in the commercial heart of London.

As the last employees trickle out through the rotating glass doors, she puts on her uniform.

Then she begins cleaning: vacuuming five storeys along with another cleaner, clearing out all the rubbish, and washing and drying all the used cutlery and crockery in the communal kitchens which are often filthy by the time she arrives. She has just two hours to complete her work.

Her least favourite task, she says, is cleaning the toilets.

“If the stench of human waste doesn’t bother you, the bleach will,” the 36-year-old explains.

It is exhausting work, particularly as she has another cleaning job in the afternoons. But Ramona tries to lighten her mood by putting on earphones and listening to salsa music.

Apart from the awkward greetings of those who pass her on their way out, Ramona barely speaks to anyone, but she says she doesn’t mind.

It’s better to be exploited than to have no job.

“My life now is not so good, but still much better from when I first arrived in London,” she says.

Ramona, who is pink-cheeked and jovial, and wears her dyed blonde hair in pigtails, came to London in search of better employment opportunities.

She left her native Bolivia in 2006, shortly before Evo Morales became president, when the country’s extreme poverty rate was at an all-time high of 38.2 per cent.

For almost a year, she shared a flat with her sister and cousin, taking on commercial cleaning jobs at night in different offices on an informal basis. She’d learn about the work through word of mouth, usually from fellow Latin Americans in her neighbourhood.

“No contracts, no uniforms, nothing when I first started,” Ramona, who was paid in cash, recalls. “Sometimes when I called my manager to ask when I would be paid after working for a week, he or she would respond, ‘So, do you want this job or not?'”

She hadn’t yet met her husband and working such unsocial hours meant that days or even weeks could pass without her speaking to anybody.

Ramona is just one in a largely invisible and vulnerable community of hundreds of migrant night cleaners in London. Her journey to the UK is characteristic of others in the industry. They often enter the country as tourists looking for a way out of poverty, working illegally at first under informal arrangements, which leave them vulnerable to job insecurity and abuse. Undocumented migrants have some avenues for legal advice but taking a case to court puts them at risk of deportation.

Ramona qualified to be a resident of the UK when she met and married her husband, a Spanish citizen of Ecuadorian descent.

But the road can be just as tough for those workers who enter the UK legally. Several cleaners that Al Jazeera spoke to had spent a number of years working both legally and illegally first in another EU country, exposed to the same problems, before exercising their right to move to the UK under the principle of the single market. All nine cleaners that this reporter spoke to were legal residents in the UK at the point of their interviews.

English classes

The precariousness that Ramona faces is similar to that of Colombian sisters Gloria, 43, and Desdemona, 47.

But their path to London was far more arduous. In 2001, they smuggled themselves to Spain where they worked undocumented as fruit collectors and then as domestic cleaners until three years ago.

Then, after securing EU citizenship, a brother-in-law living in London invited them to the UK. They stayed with him for a short period of time and began working as commercial cleaners.

“Life is hard,” Gloria says in Spanish. “I wake up at 1am to take the bus to work, and my office is near St Paul’s Cathedral. My shifts are between 2[am] to 4am, and 5[am] to 7am every day.”

It’s difficult even going to buy groceries at a supermarket because I’m too scared to ask for help.

“When we first came here,” Desdemona laughs, “we had this impression of London as a city full of blond people with blue eyes, who were rich and had a lot of money. We didn’t know there were other poor people like us, too.”

Neither sister speaks any English.

“It’s difficult even going to buy groceries at a supermarket because I’m too scared to ask for help,” Gloria says.

Their older sister died in Cali in Colombia in September 2016, but they couldn’t afford to return home for the funeral. Gloria was also worried that she wouldn’t be able to re-enter the UK if she left.

Most of the time, the cleaners say they don’t know where exactly they are going to work until their first day.

“I really wanted to learn English, and after saving for over a year, I finally paid 1,400 pounds (roughly $US1,760) to attend morning classes at a language centre,” Ramona says.

She remembers the exact amount she paid because she ended up failing the course.

“I slept through every lesson. It was so difficult to keep focus when I’d been cleaning for 14 hours through the night.”

After that came a particularly painful period of time when one of Ramona’s several employers did not pay her for three months straight.

Calls to the cleaning company went unanswered, and when she finally got hold of her manager, she was told that she had been dismissed.

“He said, ‘We lost your contract. Don’t call again,'” she says ruefully. There was nothing she could do as she was working illegally at the time and feared being sent back to Bolivia.

Her savings were being depleted at an alarming rate, and she would walk from office to office to save on bus fares, even if it took over an hour.

She didn’t consider seeking legal aid or exposing the employment abuse she was suffering. “It’s better to be exploited than to have no job,” she reflects.

Desdemona and Gloria see their work as a trap.

“We have no TV and no internet in our home. If we’re not catching up on sleep in our free time, we go to the park and eat outside in the cold,” Desdemona says. “How is this life?”

Migration and exploitation

The stories of Ramona, Gloria and Desdemona are all too ubiquitous. There are hundreds of night cleaners like them living in London.

They treat us like machines.

There are no official statistics for the total number of people cleaning London’s offices at night.

According to a 2014 report published by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), a quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation in the UK that advocates and enforces equality and non-discrimination laws, the non-domestic cleaning sector as a whole contributes more than $US10bn (PDF) to the economy each year and comprises “a largely invisible workforce of around half-a-million people” predominantly made up of women and ethnic minorities.

Likewise, there are no hard numbers on the extent of the abuse specific to the night cleaning industry, but social justice advocates interviewed for this article say they have no doubt that it is rampant. According to the EHRC report, abuses include workers being harassed and treated as “the lowest of the low”, being underpaid, unfair dismissal as a result of pregnancy, and the lack of facilities to take breaks.

The Office for National Statistics states that the minimum wage for workers above the age of 21 is 6.50 pounds (about $US8) an hour. Almost all nine cleaners interviewed for this article were paid this bare minimum.

Carolina Gottardo, director of the Latin American Women Rights Service (LAWRS) based in central-east London, told Al Jazeera that anecdotal evidence points to a large percentage of night cleaners being Latin American.

“Just go to any office in the evening, and you’ll see,” she says.

According to No Longer Invisible, a report jointly published by Queen Mary, University of London, LAWRS and the Trust for London, an independent funder focused on poverty and inequality in the city, the first wave of Latin Americans arrived in the UK in the early 1970s.

They quickly filled up work permit quotas for the hospitality and cleaning industries. These migrants were frequently from countries facing political and economic turmoil, including Argentina, Chile and Uruguay. After the work permit scheme for unskilled workers was tightened in 1979, the migration pattern for Latin American workers to the UK changed significantly. A sizable number of asylum seekers, notably those from Colombia and Ecuador, were given permanent residence in the UK under the Family Indefinite Leave to Remain scheme in 2003, a one-off attempt by the British government to grant residency to 15,000 asylum-seeking families.

Since 2000, with stricter enforcement of immigration policy, secondary migration from EU countries has driven the growth of the Latin American community in the UK.

What is happening to cleaners in this country today is essentially modern-day slavery

It is also quite common for Latin American migrants to first apply for a Spanish passport or citizenship due to the shared language, and work in Madrid for a few years before moving to the UK, some illegally. Most settle in the boroughs of Southwark and Lambeth, the neighbourhoods with the highest concentration of Latin American workers in London according to the No Longer Invisible report. Of more than 1,000 respondents almost 40 per cent has experienced workplace abuses, such as not receiving pay, and 11 per cent earn less than the minimum wage.

“They think employment prospects here are better, and they [can] easily find jobs in cleaning and hospitality. But in truth, exploitation is endemic, and women are the most vulnerable of all,” Gottardo says. She adds that “female night cleaners are a target for sexual harassment because there are no witnesses to the crime”.

Gottardo, who is from Colombia, is determined to change the status quo and explains that LAWRS uses a holistic approach to target these issues. Aside from offering English classes, housing and immigration advice, counselling and therapy, LAWRS is also engaged in advocacy and high-level policy work to push for increased regulation of the cleaning industry in London.

She stresses that the aim of LAWRS is not to empower Latin American women in blue-collar jobs.

“We just provide them with the tools to empower themselves,” she tells Al Jazeera.

A range of other government-affiliated sources is available to cleaners seeking support, including the Citizens Advice resource and the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS), a public body that arbitrates disputes within organisations with the aim of facilitating more robust employment relations practice. Workers can also file a complaint directly to HM Revenue and Customs about their employers.

In 2016, a cleaners’ union

This message of empowerment is gaining traction with London’s cleaning community.

(Employers) deliberately pack so many tasks in that it’s impossible.

Alberto Durango is the National Organiser with the Cleaners and Allied Independent Workers Union (CAIWU), formed to collectively target problems faced by contracted cleaners and other workers across the service sector. Durango was a cleaner for more than a decade after he arrived from Colombia.

He says he has been blacklisted by most cleaning companies due to his political activities organising support for workers who have been discriminated against, so he has decided to spend time on negotiation and advocacy work for CAIWU instead.

“They treat us like machines,” Durango says. “Jobs used to be eight pounds [$US10] per hour, but now most cleaning companies try to get away with the national living wage [an informal benchmark] of 7.20 pounds [$US9], which is obviously not enough if you’re living in London. There are so many tactics they can employ to trick cleaners of their wages. For example, they say that you [the cleaner] have to finish cleaning a certain number of rooms or floors within two hours, and deliberately pack so many tasks in that it’s impossible.

“If you don’t finish, you just don’t get paid. One company even makes cleaners pay 60 pounds [$US75] out of their own pocket for training.”

Night cleaners, Durango says, have it even worse.

According to him, they are more susceptible to depression due to their work hours, and the manual labour is often left to them, meaning that they can develop an array of physical ailments, including spine problems and back pain.

CAIWU was officially registered as a trade union in March 2016. It already has 700 members and is steadily growing in strength. Durango believes that the main draw of the union is the fact that it is egalitarian and has no elected leaders.

They have already staged several walkouts and protests, and Durango says that the most notorious offenders among the cleaning companies are beginning to take notice and show a grudging willingness to comply with their demands.

Speaking to Al Jazeera in November last year, he was in the middle of negotiations to reinstate employment for Gabriel*, a Nigerian cleaner who had been working in different cleaning jobs since 1971, including night shifts.

Gabriel said that he had been unfairly dismissed because he protested against racial discrimination to his bosses while contracted to clean by an external firm at one of the biggest insurance companies in the city.

He claims his Ecuadorian supervisor consistently showed favourable treatment to fellow Latin American cleaners and blatantly ostracised him at work.

“I’m Latin American, and I think that’s wrong,” Durango says. “So I will do everything within my power to make sure that Gabriel can go back to work.”

‘Modern-day slavery’

Maria Gonzalez-Merello, 43, is an employment lawyer who is also working assiduously to empower night cleaners in London and to ensure that they know their rights.

Every Thursday between 10am and 2pm, she holds free legal counselling sessions at St George’s Cathedral in south London for Spanish-speaking migrants. A large number of those who attend are night cleaners.

“What is happening to cleaners in this country today is essentially modern-day slavery,” she says.

They pretended that they couldn’t communicate with me because my English isn’t good.

Laura*, a 51-year-old cleaner from the Dominican Republic who has returned to Gonzalez-Merello’s legal session for a follow-up consultation, works only night shifts which begin at 8pm and end at 8am.

She had just emerged victorious from an acrimonious attempt to secure over 500 pounds (about $US627) worth of unlawfully withheld wages, thanks to Gonzalez-Merello’s help.

“They pretended that they couldn’t communicate with me because my English isn’t good,” Laura says as Gonzalez-Merello translates. “And when Maria got in touch with them on my behalf to claim my wages, they said I never contacted them at all. I had to show them screenshots of my phone records to prove that I had called them numerous times.”

Laura says that she is owed more than $US2,500 by the same company for cleaning various sites, but is too exhausted to continue the legal battle and would rather focus on finding a new job. She is grateful to Gonzalez-Merello for her assistance, but the ordeal has left her feeling resentful.

“When I worked in Spain,” she says, “the pay was lower. But at least I felt respected. I felt like a real human being.”

But there has been some hope for workers’ rights.

In 2014, Gonzalez-Merello was involved on a pro bono basis in a widely-publicised case involving 35 unpaid workers contracted by an external company to clean at the advertising company Saatchi & Saatchi. Although Saatchi & Saatchi itself was not legally responsible, it eventually paid each cleaner 30 per cent of what they were owed until the cleaners’ contracts were properly taken over by the new cleaning company. The company that violated the workers’ rights is now insolvent.

Hanging on to hope

It’s a cold, gloomy Saturday afternoon in November, but not even the overcast weather can affect Ramona’s good mood, as she sits in her home in Camberwell, a neighbourhood in south-east London.

“Mi casa es su casa (my home is your home),” she greets me cheerily. She shares the apartment with her husband Basilio, who is also a night cleaner like her, and three other migrant workers from Jamaica. The couple pays a total of $US880 for their room, which is crammed with a lifetime’s worth of belongings.

Ramona thinks that the rent is exorbitant, but is happy that she is finally seeing peaceful days. Before they moved here, she and Basilio shared an apartment with a mutual friend. One day while she was at work, Basilio called her in a panic. Two men claiming to be the police had entered their home, damaged their bedroom door and rummaged through all their clothes and belongings.

“Don’t come home,” Basilio had implored her. “It’s not safe.”

Ramona remembers breaking down at work. They still have video footage of the mess that the men left behind. To this day, neither of them have dared to report the incident to the police since they don’t know if the intruders were just anti-immigrant troublemakers. Ramona and other migrant workers remain reticent about contacting the police for help, fearful of not being able to articulate themselves fully in English and of being laughed at.

Ramona enjoys inviting people over and cooking for them, making hearty Bolivian fare including sancocho (chicken soup) and cerdo al horno (a roast pork dish). Mealtimes are accompanied by catchy, upbeat Latin American music, and when she gets homesick, she plays Andean tunes. Over the last 10 years, Ramona has become more confident with her English language skills and is good friends with the receptionists at one of the offices she cleans. Even with the uncertainty surrounding, among many things, the future of migrant workers in the UK with the country’s plan to leave the EU, Ramona remains hopeful.

“I am tired of cleaning,” she says over lunch. “If you had told me 10 years ago that I could do anything else but cleaning, I wouldn’t have believed you. But now, I am ready. I think it is possible… First, a receptionist job, maybe, then better things.”

*Pseudonyms have been used at the request of the subjects who wish to protect their identity.

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