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A gender change in the cleaning profession

A gender change in the cleaning profession

| Text and photo: Bjørn Lønnum Andreassen

Cleaning is about to become a male-dominated occupation. It used to be nearly exclusively women who worked the mop. Now men, especially those with an immigrant background, are taking over according to a report from the Oslo Institute for Social Research.

We meet Samir Bakli at the Ila primary school in Trondheim as he finishes his shift. He puts aside the trolley with buckets, and prepares some cloths for the wash. 

“When I came to Norway I applied for several jobs, because I had to find work of course. I got an apprenticeship in a hotel for three months, and then I got a job which involved cleaning and many other things together with the hotel’s caretaker.” 

But even after four years he was not given a full-time job. So he applied for work in the construction sector instead.

Samir Bakli

Samir Bakli

“I spent a couple of years working there as a temp. Pay varied a lot also there. Unstable pay has been a problem, because I did not have an apprentice certificate,” says Bakli.

He did not lose faith. Today, the man who arrived from Morocco eight years ago is very happy with a steady full-time job as a municipal cleaner.

Updated equipment

Bakli and his colleague Abdikadir Maow are pleased that their municipal employer over the years has provided them with new machinery and other equipment that works well.

Abdikadir Maow“I think we have equipment that is as good as what a private company provides, so we are happy. When new machines hit the market, we get them at work pretty fast. We have several good machines,” says Bakli.

“I like one we call a combi-machine. It is more relaxing to use than an ordinary mop. The machine runs itself, so I’ll just steer it and I can rest my shoulders,” says Abdikadir Maow as he keenly shows us the machine.

Climbing a little

Bakli has quite a bit of professional experience now, and is considering what and how his living should be. 

“If I had gone straight into education, my job would have been quite different. I used to want to climb the system within the municipality, or privately, but that would have meant getting more education. I also wanted to get an apprentice certificate for cleaning, but right now I am looking into learning web development,” says Bakli.

Maow from Somalia also says he is considering getting an apprentice certificate, and has been following the advice from a colleague.

“I have been doing cleaning jobs for four years. When I have done five, I am thinking of getting an apprentice certificate. I want to do that. Right now I want to continue working in cleaning, but I might choose something different in a few years from now.”

A trend towards more men

Wenche Sagøy is a trade union representative at Trondheim municipality. She says around 45% of cleaners are immigrants.

“More men with immigrant backgrounds are now applying for cleaning jobs. That is a bit limiting, because they should preferably have apprenticeship certificates. The language is often a challenge, but they get followed up on data skills and Norwegian language. Many build on their skills with courses and get paid more,” Sagøy tells the Nordic Labour Journal. Fresh research confirms what she is saying. 

From a women’s to a men’s occupation

Because cleaning has transformed from being one of the most female-dominated occupations to having a considerable number of male workers. Especially men with immigrant backgrounds, say Marjan Nadim and Julia Orupabo at the Oslo Institute for Social Research. 

They have found that cleaning as an occupation is about to “change gender”. The study involved qualitative interviews with employers in the cleaning industry in greater Oslo.

In order to understand changes to gender-segregated labour markets, we need to move beyond a mere focus on gender and look at it in light of ethnicity and immigration status, the study says. In Oslo, nearly half of all cleaners are now men.

Similar situation in neighbouring countries

Trine Wiig Hagen is trade union secretary at the Norwegian Union of General Workers (NAF). She is also involved with the SUN union which represents service industry workers in the Nordic countries, including in the cleaning sector.

Photo: Bjørn Grimstad

Trine Wiig Hagen is trade union secretary at the Norwegian Union of General Workers (NAF). Photo: Bjørn Grimstad

“Men with immigrant backgrounds who work in the cleaning industry is a city phenomenon. I worked at Oslo Airport in 2010, and there were already more immigrant men than women working as cleaners there. Another trend seems to be that more women from Eastern Europe now come to work in the cleaning industry in Norway. But we recognise the trend of immigrant men also through our work at SUN,” Hagen says.

Figures from Finnish Service Union United PAM shows the proportion of immigrant men in the cleaning sector rose from 15.4% in 2010 to 17.7% in 2017. The HAG trade union in the Faroe Islands also says there is a visible trend. Faroese men are in a majority, but many foreign-born men also work in the cleaning industry.

What does an employer expect from a cleaner?

Marjan and Julia

Social researchers Marjan Nadim and Julia Orupabo have interviewed people who are responsible for recruitment in a range of companies. One question was which skills and competencies they see as necessary for cleaners to have. This is what they found: 

  • Employers see cleaning as physically demanding work for strong men, not very suitable for women.
  • Cleaning is skilled work. “Old cleaning ladies’ knowledge” has lost its value.
  • Employers consider motivation to be an important factor. Immigrants are viewed as being less fussy and as having better work techniques and professional pride. 
  • The sum total of demands and expectations means immigrant men are viewed as the most attractive. Cleaning is a low-status job which Norwegians do not want to do.

Read the report here:

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