Audrey Hinchcliffe | The commercial cleaning industry: Turning off the lights during COVID-19
COVID-19 HAS turned the spotlight on cleaning, disinfecting and sanitisation by an industry of which little is known in Jamaica. The cleaning industry can be roughly divided into commercial janitorial and related services, residential cleaning, and specialised cleaning. The industry is so undefined that it is not unusual to find in the mix laundry, gardening, waste disposal, washroom supplies; and even security, labour management and pest control.
Hence, where two or more services are incorporated under one contractual agreement, it is referred to as ‘bundling of services’. The most common bundling of services include cleaning (janitorial or custodial), portering, waste removal, and washroom supplies. For COVID-19, a bundle specifically includes cleaning, disinfecting and sanitising a variety of surfaces. Regardless of which services constitute a bundle of services, one must be mindful of the legal and regulatory framework which governs each service and the entity which has responsibility for the regulations. For example, cleaning and sanitising - Ministry of Health; labour management – Ministry of Labour; washroom supplies – MICAF; pest control – Pesticides Control Authority; gardening and landscape – Ministry of Agriculture; chemical cleaning and disinfecting agents – Ministry of Health. It is not unusual that with the scope of work prepared by clients, industry players may have to modify these for effect and safety of the workers and occupants of buildings, and the environment.
When the commercial cleaning industry is placed in the context as part of the economy – and a major part at that – if one looks at the contribution to employment, there is no central point of regulation for data collection and to attend to issues in the industry. Hence, the industry is obscure, except in times of outbreak of communicable diseases, when cleaning and sanitation are integral, and even so it remains largely under the radar.
However, if there is ever an essential service during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is the commercial cleaning industry who turns off the lights. The industry players move in when the occupants depart, and like elves, are nowhere in sight when they return to a clean and environmentally pleasing surrounding.
The only commonality among businesses in the industry is those who are operating above ground, having been registered with the Companies Office of Jamaica. However, it is not so unusual to face competition from companies operating underground, because areas in the industry which require registration, licenses and certification are for the purpose of bidding for government services. This is facilitated by the openness of entry and exiting the industry. As a consequence, imitation flourishes as there is no one point for controls; unfair competition is unwittingly allowed to dictate prices, but not standards for services.
STANDARDS FOR BEST PRACTICES AND SERVICE DELIVERY
What does this really mean, and who is it for? It is the best way to do something. That is, the method or technique which consistently shows superior results better than if done any other way? It is the benchmark against which the service is judged. It should become, automatically, the standard by which services are provided. When applied to the cleaning service – industry-specific – the services must therefore be systematic, consistent and professional.
This is the standard of service clients should come to expect from their service provider. But how is this to be achieved? I submit, it starts with the 4Ps – people, process, products and pricing. Set out below are elements of each.
PEOPLE: It is people who make things happen. Therefore, it starts from the hiring process: screening applicants to find the best fit for the job. Janitorial or custodial service is not ‘sexy’; hence it does not attract the youngest, brightest and the best candidates in a low-wage industry, which is mostly contract work, and rapid staff turnover.
In this regard, one must aim to hire based on literacy (usually low-level), aptitude and trainability. The latter is key and borders on conditioning by visual and repetitive training methods. Training is essential for retention, as high turnover affects service quality and the bottom line.
PROCESS: This must be documented in accordance with the scope of works agreed with the client. Scope of work is wide and varied to match the business type, the building type and size, the usage, and the daily pass through. This is the background against which, among others, the process for service delivery is established; for example, schedules for service. Process forms a large part of training and honing the skills of the workers, including managers, supervisors and front-line workers. Communication and customer service are the glue that keeps the service delivery process together.
PRODUCTS: The scope of work establishes the basis for inputs for service delivery; hence, the products required for cleaning and maintenance. Products range from chemical cleaning and disinfecting agents; supplies such as mop, brooms, gloves, mask, cleaning cloth, garbage bags, PPE, washroom supplies; and equipment such as vacuum cleaners, floor scrubbers, buckets, carpet machine and paraphernalia; and specialised equipment and tools as the jobs dictate, which may even include supplies for waste disposal.
From the foregoing, it is clear that a robust supply chain management system needs to be in place, as products must be readily available in the event of emergencies or unforeseen circumstances. The outbreak of COVID-19 is a case in point.
PRICING: When taken together, people, process and products establish the basis for pricing. While clients may operate on least cost, quality must be borne in mind in order to avoid ‘getting what you pay for’. This is not in the best interest of the client nor the commercial cleaning contractor, as reputational damage has lasting effects. Pricing methods (for profit) must be well thought through to be able to acquire labour and material to support the desired cleaning standards.
It is interesting to note that although the industry in Jamaica is fragmented, in the distant past, efforts were made to form the Jamaican Association of Commercial Cleaning Contractors. During its short life, much was accomplished when a small group of interested players worked with the HEART/ NTA/NCTVET and produced a draft for training janitors for the local industry. Unfortunately, this effort died a natural death. However, elements for training janitors were picked up by an interested few.
It therefore gives hope that from the right leadership base in the industry and the work already done, when revived, will set the stage for the industry to be formalised.
M. Audrey Stewart-Hinchcliffe, CD, JP, MSc, BA, is chief executive officer and founder of Manpower and Maintenance Services Group Limited. Email comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.