'They wouldn't sack cleaners at head office' – workers react as Tesco cuts cleaning staff

Tesco has had a good crisis, with the lockdown triggering a supermarket spending spree akin to Christmas.

The strong sales have been good news for shareholders. The grocer is paying out a £635m final dividend, despite accepting a business rates holiday worth £585m from the government. Departing chief executive Dave Lewis is going out on a high, although his £6.4m pay packet for last year recently sparked one of the biggest ever shareholder revolts over executive pay.

But Tesco’s purple patch has not been good news for hundreds of contract cleaners. Despite working through lockdown, they are now losing their jobs after the retailer decided to transfer their work, including washing windows and floors, to store staff who are being asked to work extra hours to cover cleaning duties.

From 24 August staff working in 1,920 Tesco Metro and Express supermarkets will have to clean their stores, including break rooms and toilets.

Tesco said the change is not being made to cut costs, but follows a trial that showed stores “were cleaner when colleagues took ownership of general cleaning”.

In a statement Tesco said: “We are investing more cleaning hours in each store and will provide training to our colleagues. Cleanliness has never been more important, and we would not be making these changes if the trial had not resulted in improved standards or if it did not work for our colleagues.”

While some Tesco staff will welcome the opportunity to work more hours and take “ownership” of the cleanliness of their store, others, who responded to a survey on employee campaigning platform Organise , are far less keen.

The cleaning contract was split among a handful of contract cleaning companies, and several hundred workers are now facing redundancy.

The Guardian spoke to a cleaner about to lose his job and has seen the views of many Tesco workers who responded to the Organise survey.

The cleaner’s experience

“During the crisis, cleaners stepped up – they didn’t have a choice,” says one man, who is among 450 people being made redundant at one of the four contract cleaning firms that shared the business.

“You carry on,” he says of the experience of working at the height of the pandemic. “If you don’t go into work you won’t get paid. You had to cope and you did cope. And whatever risks were there, you had to put to them to one side. While other people were sitting at home on 80% furlough, you knew that you were meeting a hundred strangers a day in a busy, congested place. You didn’t have a choice.

“The cleaning company just retweeted the government advice – things like wash your hands and cough into your elbow – nothing practical. I was worried and thinking should I be wearing more PPE? Should I have disinfectants that I don’t have?

“I was given a supply of gloves to do my job but they ran out quickly. When the store had Marigolds in stock – they were often sold out when everyone was stockpiling – the manager would let me take them off the shelf to use. ”

The cleaner, who is in his mid-50s, is based in the north-west of England and asked not to be identified. He has been a contract cleaner in Tesco stores for seven years and he says: “My hours have been reduced steadily over the years. Originally you got about three or just over three hours to do the job but currently a cleaning shift is two hours in a typical Tesco Express store – one person for two hours. That’s very intensive work, and you never get it all done. You’re constantly chasing your tail.

“Where I work, they don’t want to do the cleaning,” he adds. “It means they might have to come earlier or work later. The cleaning is harder than their normal work.

“It’s so upsetting to be made redundant now at a time when lots of other people are losing their jobs too and my chances of getting another job are not good. It’s an insult. We were forced to contribute and take risks, and to go the extra mile. And this is a very poor response.

“I’ve got another two weeks of work and I’m lucky because I’m entitled to some statutory redundancy pay, but a significant number of the people here won’t get anything because they haven’t been here long enough.”

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What Tesco staff say

About 36,000 people have signed a petition, arranged by the campaigning platform Organise, against Tesco’s decision to force shop workers to take over cleaning duties.

Many have also provided their opinions on the change, and the Guardian has seen those views. The anonymised responses of staff affected by the changes include:

“I think it is disgusting. We have worked so hard during this pandemic, and are now having our workload added to and having it portrayed as a good thing, as the shop will be cleaner – as we will want to be proud. I can tell you for a fact we will not be given the time needed to properly clean the shop, so what is there to be proud of? It shows that Tesco only values profit; with no interest in staff wellbeing or morale.”

“They [the cleaners] are part of the team as far as I am concerned and we need them.”

“I think during a pandemic it’s essential to have a dedicated cleaner in the building.”

“It’s absolutely ridiculous. We don’t have time to do all the cleaning like the cleaners do. Mr Tesco obviously wants to work his staff into the ground. You won’t see the big bosses coming down and doing any cleaning. They will still have cleaners in their offices probably.”

“This feels like a violation of my role. I’m not a cleaner.”

“I would rather have the cleaners and have a little less money.”

“It’s insulting. They wouldn’t take the cleaners away from head office. Cleaning toilets is not part of a customer assistant job.”


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