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Belgium's cleaners condemn miserable working conditions

15:30 25/06/2023

Cleaning professionals employed via the titres-services system, window cleaners, caretakers and cleaners working in schools and offices came out in force this week to draw attention to how bad their working life is.

The strike action was carried out in major cities including Brussels, Liège and Antwerp on the initiative of Belgian trade union CSC’s catering and services division, on the CSC’s annual "day for professional cleaners" on Tuesday.

Members of the public were also asked to sign a petition asking the government to raise cleaners’ salaries by at least €1 per hour, which will be sent to all political leaders in the autumn.

“The cleaning sector is in a very bad way,” said union delegate Redouane Bousehir. “It is time that this work is recognised as hard labour.

"It is time that salaries increase. Most of our workers have days cut in two. They work three or four hours early in the morning and then return to work for three or four hours at the end of the day, sometimes until 22.00.

"It’s not an easy situation, we do not have a stable life and we spend our time on the road and at work instead of being near our families.”

Added to this, many people do not respect our workers, he said, especially when they come to clean the toilets or empty the bins.

Carine Marchand, who has worked for a titres-services cleaning agency since 2005, said the situation had got much worse.

"I have been lucky, and I have charming clients. But that is not the case for all my colleagues, especially the youngest," she said.

"Some clients demand impossible things like cleaning the whole house in three hours, cleaning a terrace in 30°C heat or cleaning the windows when it is snowing."

She added that some titres-services companies do not take enough responsibility for their staff, notably when it comes to abusive clients.

"I remember one client who seemed strange. I asked not to go there anymore. I explained that I thought the man was dangerous," she said.

"So, I did not have to see him any more, but they replaced me with a very young girl instead. She was sexually assaulted on the first day.

"I was shocked, I had warned the company. But these firms do not get rid of clients, they just change the cleaners."

The CSC said cleaning should be regarded as a difficult job. “In 2018, our study on the difficulties and health risks of cleaning revealed that 74% of respondents suffered physical or psychological pain because of their work,” the union said.

The most common complaints were back or neck ache (79.9%), muscle pain (68.3%) and psychological pain such as stress (41.1%), and tiredness or insomnia (37.6%).

In addition, the CSC said that absenteeism in the cleaning sector in 2021 was 9.17%, compared to the national average in Belgium of 6.13%. There were also many long-term illnesses. A recent study by Steven Rosmans at KU Leuven university revealed that cleaning products led to an increased risk of respiratory disorders such as asthma.

And if you do get sick or injured at work, it is hard to get your medical expenses reimbursed as “professional illnesses”, Marchand added.

“Shoulder pain for example is not seen as linked to cleaning work. We all have the same symptoms, but they tell us no, this has no relation to our jobs. It’s absurd.”

Written by Liz Newmark