by Marlene Jimenez
This is based on my experience as a cleaner in London; I assume there is not much difference than in the rest of the world.
It is a very important and indispensable work in every aspect but, unfortunately, its value is not recognised – either in monetary, human or social terms. It is invisible work: nobody sees it, nobody appreciates it. As a cleaner, I felt marginalized, discriminated against and exploited.
I have been in the English trade union environment since 2008 and, little by little, I have acquired knowledge of the various types of exploitation that exist in London.
I have cleaned in the City of London, in floors full of employees; the people who worked there passed over me and did not see me, nor did they attempt to clean or pick up their rubbish. When I was cleaning the men’s bathrooms, I put the sign on the door that said “cleaning in progress”: they ignored the sign and went to pee while I was there. They had no respect at all, they ignored me completely. I was terrified, as it is impossible that they did not actually see me, but they never asked permission.
The difference between cleaning in the public toilets in one of the busiest train stations in London, which I’ve also experienced, is that the people were more respectful, greeting me and asking permission if I was cleaning – and the bathrooms were much cleaner than the bathrooms of City workers (bankers). It is amazing to see people like this, with good jobs and obviously a lot of money, but way too ignorant and arrogant.
When executives, bankers or others, go to work, everything is impeccable and clean. Hospitals must be in the best standard of cleanliness, for hygiene and industrial safety: well disinfected in all areas, so as not to endanger the health of patients and workers, including doctors and nurses. This means cleaning shit, blood and other bodily fluids, thoroughly cleaning when someone dies, etc. Nobody cares who does it or how they do it, they just demand and demand, more and more. They don’t care if people are sick or if they are putting their life or health at risk, either by using dangerous cleaning liquids that directly affect their health, or by doing jobs without training. This might mean cleaning high windows with the right equipment, so workers end up climbing on stairs, tables, chairs, etc., or lifting heavy things. If the workers refuse to do so, they simply sack them; for fear of losing their job, workers rarely refuse to do so.
The companies every time demand more work for less money. The cleaners are not treated like people, more like machines of production or yield. They give the job to the one who gives more physically; if they do not manage to do the work demanded, or do not run as the company wants or if they get sick from the excess of work, they simply change the part – and it becomes a vicious circle.
There are many, many cleaners who get sick in their back, arms, hands or who acquire diseases from the use of chemicals, or stress at work, etc. And there really is no law to protect them. In order to have a legal case, evidence is needed, and in these cases it can be very difficult to gather evidence or to demonstrate that certain diseases have been acquired due to overwork or stress, or the accidents that have occurred have been due to the negligence of the company.
We can also find a lot of discrimination with pregnant women. Legally, the pregnant woman is covered by discrimination law from their first day of work, as long as there is evidence of notifying her supervisor or manager that she is pregnant. But companies do not have a bit of humanity, nothing – everything revolves around performance and profits. So they’re put to work cleaning bathrooms and using liquids that affect both the mother and the baby, or doing heavy work, pressing them to perform more, threatening them with being fired if they do not. Many times this causes the loss of the baby.
In the case where companies pay the London Living Wage (currently £10.75 per hour) the salary is an illusion since everything is based on profit. Companies cut staff and put the cleaner to work doing the job of 2 or 3 people, meaning that the cleaner often ends up working for less than the minimum wage. This is another cause of people getting very stressed and sick.
It is true that we clean shit: it is one of the most disgusting jobs. That does not mean that those who work in cleaning are rubbish. It is an honest job, which unfortunately we do as immigrants because of the language barrier, for lack of opportunities or because we have a family to support in our country of origin, and it is very hard to study, work and support a family.
By this I do not mean that we are victims. We simply want to be paid for the value of our work and be treated with respect. We have the same rights: we are not machines, but human beings just like everyone else. We feel, we think, and we also get sick.
My recommendation as a female trade unionist is that workers organise themselves to demand better wage conditions and be treated as human beings, and not as production machines. If they touch one, they touch us all – it is the only way to claim our rights with dignity.
Marlene Jimenez is an organiser with the Cleaners & Allied Independent Workers Union (CAIWU).
CAIWU is a registered trade union representing over a thousand workers employed mainly in London’s cleaning industry. They believe that every human being is entitled to dignity and respect in the workplace, and it is their mission to help their members fight for this basic right, along with others like fair pay, terms and working conditions.
Photography by Tom Medwell
If you enjoyed reading this article online, why not pick up a print copy? Your purchase will help us continue to produce anti-profit publishing – including distributing solidarity DOPE to prisoners and homeless people.