For over twenty years, Mike has worked as a cleaner on Britain’s railways. Every day he commutes into London, helping to clean carriages on the intercity train that travels from Edinburgh to London.
The job involves filling the trains with water for a deep clean, cleaning the exterior front of the train, and sanitising the driver’s cab. Mike also takes on paperwork, recording train numbers and what times they arrive and taking photographs before and after. Like many in his job, it’s been a constant battle for a decent day’s wage. Most railway cleaner jobs are outsourced, with wages kept down to maximise profits.
Initially employed by Great North Eastern Railway (GNER), many railway cleaners like Mike were outsourced to ISS. Employees of GNER were entitled to sick pay, discounted travel on the Underground, and free travel on GNER trains. They would typically work 37 hours a week. With ISS, it’s 40 hours, and he earns substantially less.
‘We were not on minimum wage when I first started. Slowly the minimum wage caught up with us but we were already at breaking point,’ he explains. Many are forced to do overtime just to make ends meet.
Burnout drove exhausted cleaners to the brink, culminating in a series of strikes in 2011. Following negotiations with the RMT, ISS agreed to pay what was considered a living wage at the time. But in the years since, amid soaring energy bills and sharp rises in the price of essentials, Mike and his fellow cleaners have been forced to live hand to mouth.
Cleaners Facing the Squeeze
Bella works as a railway cleaner in Hastings. In eight minutes, she’s expected to litter pick, sanitise, and clean the toilets of an eight-coach train. ‘You’ve got an awful lot to do in such a small space of time. We don’t have the staffing levels. In fact, we’ve lost staff over the years.’
A significant number of cleaners stay on despite poor pay and conditions in the hope that they will eventually get a better-paid job on the railway. ‘When we used to be in-house, it would be like a door to get onto the railway but it’s not the case now. We haven’t got access to internal roles,’ explains Bella. Many of her colleagues end up trapped on a contract because they’re forced to live paycheque to paycheque.
Railway cleaning has never been an easy job, but Covid-19 and the cost-of-living crisis have made its difficulties far more pronounced. According to an RMT survey, outside London 44 percent of cleaners earn below £10 an hour. This figure rises to almost 70 percent when insourced cleaners employed by Transport for Wales, Northern Trains, and Scotrail are excluded.
‘More and more people are resorting to payday loans for day-to-day things such as food shopping and travel to and from work,’ Bella says. Another RMT survey shows half of cleaners are having to ask friends or family for financial help while more than one in three are relying on credit cards to cover everyday spending.
And the challenges don’t stop there. Cleaners are having to take longer routes to work to avoid paying hundreds of pounds to commute, many unable to afford to travel on the trains they clean.
‘I know cleaners in London who travel by bus, which takes them anything up to two hours to get into work,’ says Bella. She points to the success of Underground workers who secured free travel from the start of April. ‘It shows it can be done if the willingness is there.’
Cleaners were hailed as heroes and applauded during the height of the pandemic, but today one in ten on the transport network are using foodbanks, over a quarter have skipped meals, and 84 percent are struggling to make ends meet.
‘We were the army fighting headlong with Covid, trying to reduce risk for those travelling on the transport system. We were exposed to all sorts of risk. That danger was there,’ says Mike.
Poor pay and conditions are having a real impact on family life too. ‘How can you be a mother or father working six days a week and you’re still struggling?’ says Bella. ‘You can’t even clothe your kids. We’ve got single parents starving themselves just so they can feed them. It’s disgusting.’
And the cost-of-living crisis is making things far worse. ‘I used to pay £300 for my gas and electricity. I’m now paying double that. It’s difficult,’ says Mike. ‘When one of my colleagues talks about bills and rent, I see tears in her eyes.’
Cleaners across the transport network have voted to take part in their first ever national strike. Over 1,000 contracted out cleaners working for the likes of Churchill, Atalian Servest, and Mitie are eligible to take industrial action.
Mike remains optimistic that strike action could lead to better pay and conditions but he’s under no illusions about the scale of the challenge. ‘During the 2011 strikes, we were discouraged by management. They said, “you’ll get nothing. I don’t know why you guys are out there.” But we didn’t give up. We fought on and eventually we got the living wage at that time, which was a great win.’
But things have changed drastically today. In June 2019, RMT surveyed cleaners asking them whether their wages covered bills. 63 percent said they sometimes or regularly struggle to get by on what they earn. When the union put the same question to cleaners again in October 2022, the difference was stark. 84 percent of people responding said they sometimes or regularly struggled to make ends meet, with 55 percent saying they regularly struggle.
Cleaners are demanding £15 an hour, company sick pay, decent holidays, and good pensions from contractors — many of whom are raking in millions in profits. For Bella, outsourcing is at the heart of this dispute. ‘The train companies at the top are avoiding responsibility by outsourcing to a private company. It’s deliberate. If cleaning services are brought back in-house, I’m certain our demands will be met.’
The workforce itself consists primarily of cleaners from ethnic minority backgrounds and a substantial number of migrant workers where English isn’t a first language. ‘It’s a challenge organising workers from so many backgrounds,’ Bella says, ‘but you wouldn’t expect fighting for cleaners to be easy.’
Despite these barriers to organising, Bella remains confident that workers will win. For one, the union has more members than ever before. The wave of industrial action taking place across the country has buoyed cleaners into a sense of determination to fight for better. ‘It has educated people,’ says Bella. ‘The stigma around joining a union and being depicted as a troublemaker is gone. People aren’t scared anymore. They’ve got no option.’
‘Train drivers, railway workers, people in other industries — everyone is fighting back. I believe we will get there,’ says Mike.
‘We work and work and work and we still can’t even afford the basics. We should be able to actually enjoy our lives. We should be able to spend time with our families,’ Bella says. ‘It’s like we’ve all had it drilled into our heads that we don’t deserve to live a normal lifestyle. We do and we’re determined to fight for it.’