‘They said I’d be cleaning toilets so I quit’

Sandra Gilbert Image copyright Sandra Gilbert

When Sandra Gilbert returned to work at a safari park after weeks of furlough, it didn’t turn out as she had expected.

“On my return I was told that I wouldn’t be in the gift shop any more,” she says. Instead she would be wiping tables in the restaurant and cleaning toilets.

Before the pandemic she’d worked for 13 years first as a manager, then as a retail supervisor, talking to customers, tidying displays, ordering stock.

“I am 60 years old and felt this was very unfair,” she says. “To be pushing a big trolley round, cleaning toilets, it’s a bit of a come-down. I don’t want to sound snobbish, but I felt I was treated badly.”

The next morning she got up and emailed to say she wouldn’t be returning to work.

With the end of lockdown, retail outlets have promised customers more frequent and more thorough cleaning regimes. While some businesses are using more contract cleaning services, others including staff at Tesco’s smaller stores will be asked to take on these duties.

Tesco suggests that by asking staff to clean shelves, floors, windows and shared toilet facilities, stores will be kept cleaner. But many people, including some Tesco workers are sceptical, concerned that staff will end up pushed for time or switching between cleaning and serving customers in a way that might not be hygienic.

And it is a debate that applies not only to Tesco but to dozens of other workplaces according BBC readers who shared their views over who should be keeping these spaces clean.

‘There’s no-one else’

Not everyone objects to the new arrangements, however.

“I think you’ll find that most community pharmacy staff, including the pharmacist, are required to clean the whole of the pharmacy, kitchen, toilet facilities, etc, several times a day. There is no-one else to do it,” writes a pharmacy worker who contacted the BBC.

“We just get on with it. Every time I see a patient privately in the consultation room it’s up to me to clean it down. Every time we speak to a patient at the counter, we clean it down. Yes, it’s a waste of my professional time, but that’s just the way it is. No one else is going to do it.”

Staff in hospitals and other medical facilities say they have also pitched in during these unprecedented times, as have primary school teachers who are wiping down desks, door handles, books and toys every day. Now it seems that we will have to adjust to this being the new normal for now.

Image copyright Getty Images

According to employment experts Acas, employers can ask staff to take on additional duties, such as cleaning, and refusing to do so could provoke disciplinary action. And while trades unions will often support staff who object to such changes, for the most part workers are likely to be obliged to accept the new duties.

‘Clean that!’

“Our store has no specially paid cleaner,” says a worker at a large clothing chain in a retail park, who doesn’t want to be named.

“We have to clean every hour, and for an hour after store closing. We are supposed to mop the whole store and back of house, clean toilets, common areas as well as the store,” she says.

She says from the first day back she was expected to clean but was given no practical training, only a ten minute online training module. Managers would simply point and say “clean that”, she says.

“Cleaning is a skilled job and it will not be done properly by people with no training for example how to disinfect cloths and mop heads when there’s no washing machine.”

Given that we clean at home, some don’t believe training is necessary. However large scale, public areas can pose different challenges to a domestic bathroom or kitchen. Staff may be expected to use potentially hazardous chemicals, as well as facing the risk of infection with coronavirus if they aren’t given protective clothing.

Pull together

Nevertheless Alison Tipper, who works at a 24-hour Budgens grocery store at a Shell petrol station in Somerset, thinks shifting cleaning out of the hands of contractors to shop staff is a smart move.

“Contract cleaners are poorly paid and work extremely anti-social hours, therefore have little interest in doing a good job. If the task is completed by supermarket employees themselves, in my opinion it is much better.”

Image copyright Alison Tipper
Image caption ‘No-one should think cleaning is beneath them’

Alison works nights, and while footfall is low in the early hours, she is busy replenishing stock, mopping the floor, cleaning coffee machines, making sure the forecourt is litter free and bins emptied and cleaning the toilets.

“I take a lot of pride in cleaning at work,” she says. It’s a small team and she likes to leave the place spotless for when the morning crew arrive.

She says when she used to work for a big supermarket she thought the contract cleaners were “slapdash” because they didn’t have a reason to a really good job. Whereas, in a small place, it’s in everyone’s interests to keep the environment clean.

“If you’ve never been asked to clean the loo or the floor you shouldn’t throw a wobbly,” she adds.

“No one, not even a manager, should consider any cleaning job ‘beneath’ them. Everyone should pull together to do a great job.”

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