Trade Associations: The vital link

Janice Raycroft speaks to our key associations who have proved to be a crucial support network to the industry during these recent difficult times.

From poring through government advice and regulations – and lobbying those in power – to sharing information and solutions to a host of new problems, the expertise of our industry associations has been paramount during the COVID- 19 crisis. The ‘day job’ of looking after the interests of the laundry and cleaning sector has stepped up several gears as they’ve been providing an unprecedented network of support. There’s no doubt this will be just as vital throughout the rest of this year and beyond.

And, like individual businesses, they’ve found it can be a bureaucracy assault course. You seem to be making progress only to find yourself facing the same hurdles and challenges again and again. Others have encountered a lack of ‘old school’ technical understanding, stripped out of the likes of health authorities and trusts in recent years, meaning that vitally important issues can end up on the back burner during the procurement process of essential PPE.

Even so, those leading the charge still rightly look for positive signs during all this, and David Stevens, chief executive of the Textile Services Association (TSA), has been doing just that. “The membership and rest of our industry has really worked together on collective issues, from the largest laundries to the smallest. That’s included 57 laundries across numerous sites, plus some 50 operations, including the small laundries, which are currently non-members,” he says.

There’s been a lot of shared knowledge and counselling on the best routes to staying in business, with competitive instincts put aside. Stevens and the TSA team are in regular contact with operations facing genuine adversity, with 90 per cent of staff furloughed and both owners and workers feeling ‘desperate’.

He’s hoping that, following successful survival plans, perhaps 20 or 30 will join the TSA as a result, having been involved in the new networking, Skype calls and webinars. But that’s for the future and right now the focus is on important issues, most of which could make or break sectors. “The key to all this in getting results is lobbying, and that’s tough,” Stevens admits. “Firstly, although it’s the most important thing to us, numerus other industries, their trade organisations and powerful voices from the big commercial enterprises, are doing exactly the same – in a queue, trying to reach the right ear in government for long enough to get the message across. Landing in the ‘pending tray’ is often an achievement, never mind seeing some action as a result.”

Stevens, like most of our trade association representatives, tries to keep a lid on his frustration, but it’s revealed – along with good news of progress – in what has become a stream of update newsletters sent out to members. In one of the latest he talks of producing guidelines for the re-opening of hospitality laundries, hoping ‘it won’t gather too much dust before we actually get round to using it’. The same newsletter is critical of the level of support from government on a re-usable gowns project but breakthroughs occur as bureaucratic logjams are cleared, so by the time you read this things will have hopefully moved in a better direction.

Asked by Laundry & Cleaning Today about all this, Stevens says: “You can be dealing with government and local authorities at the same time. You think you’re getting somewhere because a letter arrives from a minister which starts ‘Dear David’ and then you receive another one that’s identical, whether it’s signed by the chancellor or someone else.”

Lengthy sympathy letters from those in power often conclude with directing the recipient to guidance on websites they already know inside out. Even so, this apparent going round in circles can pay off. Having tried the usual channels to reach government officials – both politicians and civil servants – the TSA began publishing open letters to chancellor Rishi Sunak and business, energy and industrial strategy minister Alok Sharma alongside this.

The subject matter was laundries serving the hospitality industry, setting out how such businesses were an integral part of this vital contributor to UK GDP and so should be automatically included in the Hospitality Grant (Small Business Grant Fund) and the Business Rate Relief schemes. The struggle has been caused by a lack of uniformity in the response from local authorities to applications for support under the hospitality support schemes. In one council area an application by a laundry whose very survival depends on contracts with currently closed hospitality businesses would be accepted, while a near identical operation, both laundering and linen supply, in another local authority jurisdiction would find its bid rejected.

By mid-May 10 laundries had successfully navigated their way through this, including Midland Linen Services, Regency Laundry (Bath), Telford Laundry and Blossom & Brown of Newham. Meanwhile, many others backed by the TSA battled on and a week later knew of four more which had been approved. An improvement, but as Stevens acknowledged, the lobbying letters would continue to ‘see if we can drive them into submission’. Meanwhile, other TSA projects connected to the COVID battle continue to be handled by Stevens and his team, working from home. These include producing a good practice guide and hosting a webinar for when hospitality laundries re-open.

Then there’s the possible re-purposing of a hospitality laundry to process healthcare clients and an associated issue where, at the time of writing, a lack of government support is still causing frustration. It’s reusable gowns to replace much of single use PPE (around 45 million tonnes of such clinical waste is produced each year). The TSA is fighting this campaign on several fronts, believing that healthcare workers should not be taking home their workwear for home laundering, so increasing contamination risk.

As it happens, they’ve been supporting a two-year project with De Montfort University in Leicester which has been looking at the measuring of the ‘kill rate’ of bacteria by studying laundry liquor, temperature levels and the results from various wet and dry textiles. Now COVID-19 has been added to the research.

Progress with government on reusable gowns has been ‘frustratingly slow’, Stevens admits: “We could be servicing every care home. We’ve issued a joint document with PCIAW, a trade association for garment and fabric manufacturers who have also had similar experiences as ourselves when working with the government.”

Those were the days… the TSA’s David Stevens speaking to an audience at the National Congress. We all want to get back to this but in the meantime the task is working from home while trying to extract answers from those in power.

Ian Hargreaves of the Society of Hospital Linen Services and Laundry Managers understands the frustrations of those tangling with bureaucracy and hopes that ‘Lessons to be Learnt’ will include the loss of professional expertise inhouse within the sector.

One thing’s for sure, if Ian Hargreaves, treasurer at The Society of Hospital Linen Service and Laundry Managers, had been listening in to the Laundry & Cleaning Today and TSA conversation, there’s a lot with which he’d have been nodding his head. “When you’re dealing with government it’s like constantly throwing pebbles into a pond, waiting for the ripples to come out. And what does arrive contains a lot of conflicting information.”

Hargreaves talks of some ‘desperate’ conversations with those seeking to obtain PPE and says that the stripping out of hospital laundries in recent years coupled with smaller, amalgamated procurement teams in NHS trusts has led to a serious loss of technical expertise and knowledge gained and handed down over decades. It would be easy for the SHLSLM stalwarts to say ‘Well, we did warn you’, but they’ve rallied round to help where they can.

“There was the government making announcements on obtaining PPE and they even sent the RAF to Turkey to bring back millions of pieces which turned out to be no good. Did they get the spec right? Was it that people didn’t know what they were asking for?” he wonders. The reason for this speculation is the many requests for advice SHLSLM’s impartial experts have dealt with from those in buyer roles, which when they themselves asked follow-up questions suggested some of those tasked with seeking PPE were unsure about thermo-chemical disinfection, textile types, and right down to whether they wanted cuffed sleeves and other requirements. They found the same with some procurement teams trying to sort additional bedding sheet orders when subjects such as moisture retention and cotton versus polyester blends were raised.

With his ‘other hat’ on, Hargreaves, with 30 years’ experience in the management of linen and laundry services in both the public and private sectors, heads up Laundry Solutions, a consultancy of experts helping with everything from specialist training to tendering. “We’ve offered various training courses over the past 12 months but there’s been no take-up from the NHS – and then along comes the pandemic!”

Despite all this, he and the SHLSLM team are hoping that as the virus is conquered and we reach ‘lessons must be learnt’ stage that not only will their membership increase but that there will be a focus on standardisation between hospital trusts when it comes to the PPE and bedding they need. Also welcome will be strong voices doing more than hand-wringing acknowledgement of the effect on the NHS of losing so much expertise as a result of reducing the number of skilled laundry plant managers in their ranks, which looked good on the accountants’ balance sheets but would always eventually have an effect.

This is not the time for a witch hunt or ‘to poke fingers’ but at some stage we must all reflect on policies made and implemented well in advance of the pandemic. The review should not necessarily be to reverse them, Hargreaves says, but to examine the logic and reasons behind the change, even if only to validate the decisions made in view of recent events.

“But this mustn’t all go into the background and we will be a voice to make sure it does not,” he concludes.

Even the ‘wise old heads’ of the industry haven’t been able to answer every question from their members and the public. As Ken Cupitt, chairman of the council and examination board at The Guild of Cleaners and Launderers explains, there’s a lot of debate on best practice. “We have a feature on the Guild website named ‘Ask the Expert’, and much more use has been made of this since the start of the pandemic, with members posing questions that stretched the knowledge and abilities of the ‘grey beards’ operating as panel members. “There is still a lot of confusion about precautions to be taken as the lockdown eases, particularly with regards to garments that are touched in retail shops, but not bought, and formal hire garments where items may be tried on but not hired, and shop counters where clean and soiled items may be passed over.”

Beyond all this, for some the discussion may have little relevance. Cupitt says: “On a sad note many launderers and cleaners may not survive the lockdown because of the long period of closure and the strain on cashflow, even the ones who remained open, as an ‘essential service’, have seen massive reductions in revenue.” On the positive side, the Guild has welcomed more cooperation between the trade associations during lockdown, freely sharing information of help and assistance. And past decisions by the GCL have paid dividends throughout the pandemic. “We had the vision to engage the University of Northumbria to do original research into low temperature processing, and financed this with the help of match funding from the Worshipful Company of Launderers, and this was before we had any knowledge of coronavirus, but we wanted to be sure that we could have confidence in the hygiene of our processes,” he reveals.

“The outcome of this research proved that wetcleaning/washing at 30°C, or lower, microorganisms are not killed unless a bactericide/ disinfectant, such as the peroxy bleach PAP6, is added, and it also proved that in drycleaning in perchloroethylene none of the microorganisms survived. Sadly, because of financial constraints of the cost of the research other higher temperatures and other solvents were not tested, but this has still been research of great benefit to our business sector and knowledge learning.”

Through its 70 years of history the Guild has shared disseminated knowledge through journals, newsletters, monthly meetings, conferences and seminars. But it is the online presence which has aided sending out monthly news bulletins, along with Amber Alerts, warning of garment/items, or care labels, giving reasons for process concern, and technical bulletins which are a reference point increasing members’ knowledge. All were going online before COVID-19 but have now proved a valuable source of information for members. With no monthly face-to-face meetings, a ‘virtual online’ system is giving members 24 hours a day, seven-days a week access to talks and lectures. These can be visited as many times as the member wishes, perhaps absorbing at a slower pace to build their knowledge. The Guild plans to put a library of these together for access on their website.

Cupitt adds: “We also acknowledge that learning methods have had to change and have teamed up with CINET (The International Committee for the Professional Textile Care Industry) and adopted e-learning which is available to anyone, not just Guild members, via the front page of our website.”

The e-learning platform is suitable for a desktop computer, laptop or tablet; the platform is also compatible with Mac OS, Windows, Linux, Android, Chrome OS, iOS and WP. In order to serve people from different backgrounds with the appropriate information, the information in the Guild/CINET educational programme is divided into three levels to suit beginners, those with some knowledge already and those who wish to study at a more advanced level.

The pandemic has also seen the Guild introduce some new titles to its suite of textbooks. These include ‘The Science of Laundry’, which replaces the older ‘An Introduction to Laundry Chemistry’, and ‘Professional Wetcleaning, in place of ‘Wetcleaning, Washing and Aqueous Processing’, which has now been withdrawn. Shortly available will be an updated ‘Questions and Answers for Launderers and Cleaners’, with sections to suit all disciplines that can be used for reference as well as a method of learning. This also features sections on guidance regarding matters such as garment labels, claim forms, ‘owner’s risk’ forms, garment checking, quality checking, customer rights, small claims court procedures and ‘your rights as a cleaner’.

Ken Cupitt of The Guild of Cleaners and Launderers fears that many small laundry and drycleaning businesses will eventually succumb to the drain on their income, even though they’ve done their best to stay open.

Bruce Herring of NALI is concerned for the future of launderette operators who rely on sports teams and hospitality businesses for a significant part of their income.

NALI , The Nationa l Association of the Launderette Industry, found itself besieged with queries from the start of lockdown when it was announced that members’ premises could stay open because of the contribution to public health.

As chairman Bruce Herring recalls, this opened up an enormous range of issues to deal with for launderettes and drycleaners – starting from whether to offer ‘service washes only’, customer access to process their own laundry, or both. Queue control, social distancing, sanitising and disinfection, removing items like magazines and waste bins which might be touched by customers, the list has been endless. Then, with collection services, there was the question of handling service washes for those self-isolating.

Several members quickly opted to take part in government schemes, whether ‘top up’ money or furloughing. Their NALI membership ensured they could discuss the choices with others in the same boat and share subsequent experiences. “How’s it gone? A very mixed bag of results,” says Herring. “Members have opened with varying degrees of success and it’s been made more difficult to judge because of the sunshine, so fewer people needed to use tumble dryers.”

Around half a dozen senior members have been monitoring the situation, finding it hard to quantify, but Herring reckons that many are reporting 50-60 per cent of normal takings.

“What’s also missing, of course, for many launderettes is the regular arrival of the likes of rugby and football kits. And some members have a deal with the local hotel to launder all their linen – that’s gone completely right now. Fewer launderettes have full-time staff these days so that’s created a dilemma for those opting to offer only service washes – and of course you have the staff safety issue. Add in that some ladies like to do their own launderette washing so no one else handles their ‘unmentionables’ and you can see how tricky all this is,” Herring adds.

NALI has had to cancel two meetings so far because of the crisis but through its online presence and members-only forum and much busier that usual ‘grapevine’ has been able to keep people in touch. They’re also hearing from non-members seeking advice and hope they will join up, particularly on hearing how the association has a wealth of health and safety knowledge and that membership entitles you to a wealth of free legal support, should you need it. The association’s council members are already looking at the post-COVID ‘new normal’ and what the implications might be for the likes of shirt and ironing services if fewer people are attending nearby offices. One message already being pumped out is that if you are not already involved to a great degree with your local community, now is the time to build that relationship. It’s good advice which might bring work your way from returning businesses as well as customers wishing to support ‘Buy Local’ initiatives to sustain local shopping parades.

It’s now 30 years since BT achieved a notable following with the ‘It’s Good to Talk’ promotional campaign. The laundry and cleaning industry – whether usually rivals, colleagues or with very different clienteles and services – have known this for much longer. Now we’re talking and seeing one another online as well. Think of our trade associations as the vital ‘exchanges’ linking us with each other. Say ‘hello’ soon if you’re not doing it already.

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