The Cleaning Industry must be Professionalised

If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry.

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By Xolile Sizani, Group Chief Executive, Servest

“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well,” – these words were echoed by Martin Luther King Jr – one of the most influential leaders and civil rights movement activists alluding to the importance of passion and diligence.

It should not be any different for South Africa’s cleaning industry. But the reality is, our country’s cleaning industry is in a parlous state, flooded by people who see the industry as an easy escape from unemployment and poverty – and justifiably so, given that the country’s official unemployment rate is currently 27.1%. While the instincts for self-preservation should be applauded, it is equally important to keep the character of the cleaning industry intact and to retain a high level of professionalism. Industry leaders should come together to develop solutions that will ensure that we address the challenges around professionalising the industry.

A case for professionalising the cleaning industry

The cleaning industry has evolved over the years from mop and bucket operations to a multi-million-rand industry employing almost 100,000 people, employed by approximately 1,500 contract cleaning companies, of whom 620 companies, including 49 suppliers of goods and equipment are members of the National Contract Cleaners Association (NCCA). The figure could be higher as it excludes individuals and entrepreneurs who are not members of the NCCA.

Globally, the Allied Market Research have forecasted that the cleaning services market size is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 6.2% between 2016 and 2020 to reach $74,299 million by 2022. Commercial cleaning services account for the highest revenue in the overall cleaning services. Based on its sheer market size, there is a need to strategically focus efforts on professionalising and modernising the cleaning industry to ensure that our colleagues in the sector are equipped with the technical expertise and competencies they need to stay relevant and competitive.

This is not just a mop and bucket enterprise. It should be a professionalised industry, characterised by well-trained cleaning professionals who understand the importance and impact of their work on the brands they represent, the impact of their work on the environment and how their roles affect work and living spaces. Training emphasis must be placed on the importance of technical skills and soft skills, such as communication and reporting, time management and quality control skills as well as awareness of the digital future impact on the industry.

Why professionalise?

Like many other sectors of the economy, the cleaning industry has also evolved in line with the rapid changes that have taken place in the socio-economic sphere. In as much as employees need to be re-skilled for new technologies and ways of working in an evolving environment, professionals in the cleaning industry also require to be upskilled to play a meaningful role in the changing ecosystem.

The cleaning profession requires a clear and strategic thinking process, while it may seem easy and straight forward to the eye; it’s much more complex than that, cleaning needs to integrate a number of components, including health and safety, an understanding of the environmental carbon footprint and impact of products and cleaning techniques used. Cleaning is a science.

While the use of cheap products may bring down the overall cost of cleaning, most of these products are environmentally unfriendly, and have irreversible effects on people and the planet.

The industry must invest in the training, development and upskilling of employees in the sector for improved techniques and best practice. This will benefit the entire sector, and in turn, help drive out dubious cleaning operations.

Sadly, when companies think about upskilling their workforce, the focus is often on their highly skilled employees who already operate in the knowledge economy; and not the lower skilled workers. Focused investments must be made into professionalising the industry in order to achieve inclusive economic growth, but equally to empower colleagues with skills that they can use for their career development in this sector.

Facilities management companies and cleaning services businesses should be investing in training personnel without formal training for formal roles in the cleaning industry. There is a need to place value in knowledge to ensure that cleaning staff are able to respond to the dynamic needs of the industry and evolving innovations.

How the industry can be professionalised

Different industry sectors have different cleaning requirements, for example, cleaning in retail, healthcare, manufacturing and other sectors is different, has different risk profiles, and require different skills. Hence dedicated training and qualifications must be different; and likewise, because of the associated risks, remuneration should also be different.

Given the different industry requirements, there is a definite need for the industry to benchmark against other professions to begin the journey to professionalising the industry. While the industry sectors may be different, there are learnings from which to draw for the cleaning industry, for example, the Engineering Council of SA (ECSA) recognises the following different cadres in engineering, artisans, technicians, technologists and engineers. The South Africa Pharmacy Council (SAPC) also recognises pharmacist assistants with basic training, those with post basic training and qualified pharmacists. A similar model could be adapted to the cleaning industry as we journey to professionalising the industry.

For the cleaning industry, a matriculant could register for a 15 months training programme as a hygiene controller and an additional 15 months as hygiene technician and an additional year in hygiene technologies, thereby preparing the student to work in different industries as a professional Hygienist.

Understanding the cleaning industry landscape and its challenges

Various sectors have different cleaning requirements or demands, as an example the mining sector would have different safety and cleaning requirements compared to those in the healthcare sector. Likewise, the requirements for student accommodation cleaning would be different from those for office cleaning.

Due to the hazards that each sector faces, it is imperative that cleaning staff are thoroughly appraised. There must be an understanding of the hazards our colleagues  in the cleaning sector may face in their respective environment and the hazards they may cause in the event that they are not formally trained. Therefore, there needs to be an intimate understanding of the operating environment.

Many of our colleagues in the industry have been subjected to a myriad of health hazards, owing to the ignorance or disregard of safety requirements and an overall lack of understanding of the depth of their roles beyond the simplistic ‘mop and bucket’ cleaning mindset.

There is a lack of understanding of exposure that colleagues in the cleaning sector could encounter in their working environment. Research shows that they have an increased risk of contracting hepatitis B, hepatitis C, human immunodeficiency virus from needle sticks, potential cardiovascular and psychological stress from poor treatment and irregular working hours.

A study conducted in the USA in the cleaning sector found that 92% of the participants reported having at least one symptom associated with extreme workload, psychological stress and nutritional deficiencies. Working without personal protective equipment has been found to expose our colleagues in this sector to various airborne chemicals leading to health implications.

Poor working conditions, a lack of sufficient and quality Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) may result in low levels of productivity and increased risks of hazards, for workers and client’s employees.

Among some of the other challenges of the industry include dubious operators  who enter the industry to make a quick buck at the expense of the health and wellbeing of their employees. We have these operations popping up, submitting tenders and quickly employing anyone who can sweep and mop; without consideration or understanding of the risks people are exposed to in this industry; and the impact such untrained and unprofessional people can have on the environment and the organisations or people for whom they work.

Fly-by-night operations may expose clients to civil claims and a number of other risks if proper procedures are not followed, such as signing of indemnity insurance, inability to comply with statutory and acceptable Safety, Health, Environment and Quality (SHEQ) requirements. These risks may negatively impact a client’s profit margins, the brand reputation and impact on its ability to retain and attract new clients.

Due to non-compliance and a lack of investment in training support to their employees, these dubious operators often come very cheap. Many clients unfortunately choose these operators due to cost constraints, notwithstanding the high cost and reputation impact of using unprofessional and poorly trained service providers. Reinforcing professionalism in the cleaning industry will go a long way towards exposing these dubious operators and improving the working conditions of the cleaning professionals.

The cleaning industry and the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR)

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is upon us. The cleaning industry will not be insulated from the winds of change. The difference between success and failure in the Fourth Industrial Revolution will be determined by the extent to which companies manage to upskill their workforce in anticipation of these evolving changes.

Not only will professionalizing the industry ensure that our colleagues in this sector are skilled, it will also enable the industry to deal with the challenges of digital transformation and help reduce health risks and support environmental preservation efforts.

The time to professionalise this industry is not too far in the distant future – it is now.

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