As lockdown restrictions in Europe are slowly but surely eased, the return of workers to their activities is done in different ways depending on the industry and the country. In the case of Belgium, resumption of work activities started on the 4th May. Nevertheless, some industries never really stopped, as is the case for essential services. Additionally, a few of non-essential ones only partly stopped. This is the case of the service voucher sector, or more precisely the housecleaning sector, where 8% of companies never shut down their activities during the lockdown. There, resumption of work activities has also been quick to happen, even in the absence of safe working conditions. The FGTB (the General Federation of Belgian Labour) organised a survey at the federal level in mid-April to gather information directly from the workers about their working conditions. Results showed, in particular, that 84% of housecleaners did not receive all the necessary Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to safely perform their tasks, 90% of the employers did not organise any training on safety measures and 65% of housecleaners had to work with the client coming regularly in the same room as them.

A follow-up survey at the beginning of May revealed that already 3/4 of housecleaning staff had resumed their activities. The four main reasons for their return to work being financial problems (56%), fear of losing their job (44%), their employer required it (34%) and their client required it (33%). Other worrying numbers: 13% of housecleaners stated they had not received any PPE at all from their employer, 56% said they could not join a manager if a problem occurred, and 71% revealed that their client would regularly come into the same room as the one they were working in.

The FGTB has tried to deliver guidelines for the sector with the recommended PPE. However, as Catherine Mathy, union representative for the FGTB in the region of Charleroi-Sud Hainaut states, “the employer’s federation refused to make any changes or improvements compared to the generic guide. Therefore, we have a really basic guide: respect of social distances at work, but no obligation to wear a mask or use hand sanitiser”. Nevertheless, when working with the Walloon federation for social inclusion enterprises, results were decisively more positive: “A basic risk analysis was made and the federation asked all the companies it represented to at least respect that framework”.

A tool that has emerged in the sector are client agreements. They include questions to ensure the reporting of household contamination and to determine if the client is a person at risk of contamination. For Catherine Mathy, in the companies using client agreements, “there has been a reflection on how to reorganise the work. But there has also been one on the psychosocial burden and in some companies, a phone number for a contact person has been put into place”. These enterprises have seen their workers resume their activities later than others, however, with both the client and the housecleaning staff reassured, and proper PPE into place, they have “50% of their workers going back to work”. Still, these agreements are considered exceptions. In the Charleroi region, the union representative estimates that “more or less 1/3 of enterprises have put measures into place and have complied with them”.

Photo by Tania Castro