It’s become cliche to say that COVID-19 has changed everything. The way we relate to each other, how we shop, where we eat.
But as a lifelong trade unionist who has spent decades negotiating contracts on behalf of factory workers, truck drivers, nurses and cleaners, I can tell you one thing that hasn’t changed — when workers join together in unions, everybody wins.
We are seeing this very clearly in the cleaning sector. Cleaners across the world have long been underpaid, unappreciated and undervalued. But now they have found a renewed sense of pride and determination to claim their rightful title as essential — especially as their vital role in the fight against COVID-19 has become evident.
These often-invisible workers start at dawn or finish late into the night, and they are all at a high risk of contracting the coronavirus and spreading it to their families. Yet many are still paid at or below the minimum wage. They are also often migrants, women, undocumented and employed on precarious contracts lacking sick pay and other social protections.
“Throughout the pandemic, we’ve felt prouder and more courageous,” says Isabel Cortes, a cleaner in Peru and union member who has been protesting for decent working conditions. “We feel like lionesses because we’ve stood up to the disease. Our neighbors have called us heroes. We’ve been on the frontline of this crisis, and now we deserve more.”
This pride is well-earned. More than ever, our world relies on the skills and effort of workers like Isabel to create a safe environment to work, study, entertain, and rest. Millions of cleaners worldwide are making a vital contribution to reducing the risk of coronavirus contamination.
Across the globe, the heightened importance of cleanliness has increased the value of the services provided by cleaners. But this hasn’t always led to higher pay and benefits. That’s why the role of unions has become increasingly important.
Unions around the world are bringing this cause to the attention of their employers, their government, and their public. In Belgium, cleaners have won greater access to social benefits, and those working in sensitive facilities — like hospitals and nursing homes — have received an elevated work classification.
In Sweden and Germany, unions are fighting for a salary increase. In Argentina, where thousands of cleaners have fallen sick, their union’s health and safety programs are helping ensure that personal protective equipment is efficiently distributed.
Others are still fighting. Most cleaners are not covered by collective bargaining agreements. In many cases, it is left up to public authorities to enforce minimum wage and social protection laws. In others, they are left to fend for themselves.
While there’s no question the coronavirus has changed the way we work, it has yet to change how we value it.
Cleaners are a vital part of our public health systems. And it’s time for employers to stop pushing them to the bottom rung on the economic ladder. They deserve to be part of the foundation of a new recovery that benefits all.
Christy Hoffman is the General Secretary of UNI Global Union, which represents more than 20 million workers from more than 150 different countries. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.