Leaders of one of the UK’s biggest industries have branded the Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s comments about reducing migrant workers entering the country as ‘ridiculous’, ‘completely out of touch’ and ‘divorced from reality’.
The £59 billion cleaning, hygiene and waste sector has been suffering from severe staff shortages since a tightening of immigration rules last year aligned with cleaning and hygiene professionals being incorrectly labelled as unskilled, making it more difficult for overseas workers to join the industry.
The British Cleaning Council (BCC) has been calling for Government to recognise the vital work of sector staff and help with the recruitment crisis in the sector, which is one of the ten biggest industries in the country, for over a year without success.
With Covid cases rising nationally, the UK heading into the flu season and monkeypox cases already prevalent, the industry body has warned the crisis could hamper the nation’s 1.47 million cleaning staff from carrying out their vital, frontline role of keeping hospitals, schools, supermarkets and other public buildings virus-free.
The Home Secretary told the Sun on Sunday that Britain had too many low-skilled migrant workers.
BCC Chairman Jim Melvin said: “I was appalled to hear these ridiculous and completely out of touch comments from a Home Secretary. The Home Secretary is completely divorced from the reality that industries like ours face with huge recruitment problems.
“Putting more restrictions on workers entering the country when there already aren’t anywhere near enough UK nationals coming forward to fill the mass vacancies is absurd and it is also seems very surprising from a politician whose own family, I believe, were migrants, to pursue such a short-sighted policy.
“In the healthcare sector, cleaning staff are close to breaking point trying to keep facilities virus-free and throughout the industry we are struggling to maintain the standards needed to keep the public healthy, safe and well because of the number of vacancies.
“With the risks posed by Coronavirus, flu and monkey pox increasing, I dread to think what could happen over the winter. The lack of staff could affect hygiene standards and who knows, it could arguably put some people’s lives at risk.
“I truly hope that is not the case, but the Government should consider themselves pre-warned and surely we have to learn lessons from the last few years!
“The industry is desperate for the same kind of help that other sectors have received but the Government is not listening. It has classified cleaning staff as unskilled but, in fact, the sector’s skilled and professional personnel perform a vital, frontline role that needs to be recognised and, strangely, I don’t recall Mrs Braverman decrying the unskilled nature of our brave colleagues over the last few years! It would appear that yesterday’s heroes are today’s unskilled and unwanted.”
“Furthermore, the Government’s own figures state that there are 1.26 million vacancies more than we have people to fill them and this figure has grown some 59% from the January to March 22 quarter. The trend with quarterly growth falling for the 13th consecutive period, down to negative 2.6% in June to August 2022 is of additional concern to all when we note that vacancies were also 20.4% above from the same time last year.
“How the Government intend to grow the economy as we keep hearing, without the correct numbers of people to fill job roles is beyond me as is understanding why, by definition, Mrs Braverman and the government also effectively reduce funding into the public coffers in terms of income tax and NIC contributions?”
During the Covid-19 pandemic, cleaning and hygiene staff have focused on ensuring workplaces and public buildings remained virus-free and safe to use, with enhanced cleaning regimes and new working practices being introduced across the board, often requiring staff to work more intensively.
The cleaning and hygiene industry has traditionally depended on employees of all nationalities, with Labour Force Survey figures from 2020 showing that 20 per cent of the cleaning and hygiene industry workforce nationwide were from overseas, rising to 55 per cent in London.
But following the new rules brought in by the Immigration Act in 2021 and Brexit, many foreign nationals working in the industry left the country and have not returned.
UK nationals have traditionally not joined the industry and so vacant positions are proving difficult to fill.
The scale of the recruitment crunch was recently highlighted when figures from the Recruitment & Employment Confederation’s Labour Market Tracker showed that the number of job postings for cleaning staff increased by 11 per cent in just one week, a higher rate than for nurses, care workers or primary school teachers.
While other sectors, such as poultry, truck driving and fruit picking have all received Government help due to recruitment issues the BCC has been unable to even secure a meeting to discuss the issues.
It is urgently calling for the Government to recognise that cleaning staff are frontline keyworkers and play a vital role in keeping people safe, healthy and well.
The BCC wants the Government to work with the industry to:
· review recruitment in relation to staff availability, the Immigration Act, the Apprenticeship Levy, rates and specification requirements
· develop a short-term and long-term strategy for the industry in relation to training and skills and changing cultural and social attitudes to make the profession a more attractive choice of career.