I’m watching the play of sunlight on the carpet, slatted to narrow fingers from the blind at my window. This bedroom is a jumbled mass of storage, half-sprawl and half-ensemble of life as it stands. I dare not unpack any more for the time being.
Arriving at my new workplace this morning, I wandered about the vast estate trying to find someone to let me in. It was cold, a rather blue morning, with the odd cast of rain under the lamplight that is like so many little claws. When I finally found someone to open a door, she looked me up and down with the wariness I’ve seen before – we’re all after the same hours, see, and no one knows where they will be going to next. Turns out that this first impression was terribly accurate, because she was agency staff and had come to do my job.
I learned this from the supervisor, who took one look at me and exclaimed – in quite a different tone to the accommodating one of two weeks ago, at the interview – “What are you doing here?”
I told her I’d come to start my new job. She shook her head. “No, I was told you didn’t want it. That you’d gone back to work at the police station.”
I felt every feature of my body run down to the carpet. I turned to ice water, right there in the foyer.
“No, I never said anything such thing.”
She pulled out her phone, dialled up the woman who deals with company contracts, and told her I was here – with the agency girl.
“She says that you didn’t get in contact, she’d been ringing you repeatedly and got no response… then a text from someone, saying that they had decided to stick with the four hours, part-time. She said that was you.”
I stared at her. The supervisor put me on the phone, and I had to listen to the simper of this woman – who had called my number personally as I walked off-site two weeks ago after the interview, to tell me I had got the job and would be starting on the 16th March – about there being a mix-up. That she had a list of numbers, no names, all cleaners … that I should have got in contact with her in the interim. That I had texted to tell her I was staying at the police station after all.
Now, there are two levels of bullshit going on here, and at some point they converge to make one big steaming pile. A) That I had cut off all contact, when in fact I had been told I’d got the job and assumed that was the end of it, to bring passport and birth certificate to be signed onto the system, as per usual requirements. B) That I *had* got in contact, through a number she has apparently dialled for the past two weeks and received no response from, to turn down the job and stick with part-time.
I had specifically told them I was leaving the police station to find full-time work, and would be relocating if I landed this job. I don’t drive, so it’d cut the commute to my pedestrian level.
“Oh, I’m really sorry, it’s all a bit of a mess.”
Let me define “mess”, here. I have moved house, left my friends, cancelled a gym membership and set up a new one, all on the back of supposedly secure employment. Perhaps I was naive. Or perhaps I was just swept to one side in the usual manner of cleaning companies with their treatment of staff.
For the two or so hours I was on that site, I had to listen to the supervisor and the contractor talk about me and the agency girl as though we were mismatched ornaments cluttering up a mantelpiece. To say this was humiliating is to understate what it means for the mind and ego. I’ve been here before. I’ve seen it happen enough times to other cleaners, to know the score.
When the company’s head office called back to say that I couldn’t take the job, I went very quiet inside. Pinprick black in white. A short flurry of tears, before facing the contractor to tell her exactly what people like her do to cleaners trying to find (and hold onto) work. That we base our lives around uneasy contracts, ready to be dropped at a moment’s notice if it’s zero hours (and sometimes even when it’s not), scrabbling for what money we can get, often without hope of a pay rise. In my last job at the Nick, my wage was frozen for four years. It was subsidized by a very generous senior officer who had a habit of buying me bottles of rum and book tokens, as random “thank you” notes.
She hedged and muttered and whined, didn’t look me in the eye.
I’d heard enough anyway, and left.
I think it’s fair to say that the majority of cleaning job descriptions are a bit sparse on details. You’ll find the word “general” crops up a lot, which can mean anything from raking your hands under a sofa to fish out dropped food, to scrubbing bleach along the walls to remove damp mould. One of my favourite misspellings is “hovering”, which I’ll leave you to work out. On the whole, cleaners do conduct a service that’s largely ignored or unseen, let alone appreciated, so the image of fairies flitting about the worlds’ offices, warehouses, hotels, gymnasiums, health spas etc, is more pleasant than the often grim reality.
Chronically low wages. Little chance of promotion to a supervisory role unless you hold a driving license. Uniforms that seem to have been carved out of trees. Sticking your hands (and head) in places most sensible folk would avoid. Visiting an osteopath now and then (if you can afford it) to have your back and shoulders cracked.
These are the more obvious aspects of the job. What is often overlooked – and I’ll admit, I’ve only become aware of it after ten years in this gig – are the mental and emotional affects this line of work can have.
Lack of communication is probably the worst part. Assuming you’re daft, management will rarely filter down information unless it suits them to. The simplest things – trying to book a holiday or file for a tax rebate when someone in HR has fucked up and put you on an emergency code – become akin to slogging through thick grease. When you are spoken to, it’s often as an easily-discarded object. One unpleasant experience that sticks in my mind was the sight of a man brought to tears because he had turned up to work in the wrong shoes – and if you think that’s pathetic, you should have heard the language and tone used on him by our supervisor. He might as well have been a small boy. The fact he had only recently arrived in the country, and was busy improving on his fledgling grasp of English (sitting with a book in his lap at every spare moment, tea and lunch breaks) was exploited in such a way that I felt burning shame. Sadly, no book could have taught him how to cope with supercilious wankers.
When I took my first cleaning job (early evenings in a warehouse) I was doing it to prop up my mother’s wage, to keep us both afloat. I was a few months out of hospital, having spent 7.5 months on an inpatient ward learning how to eat again. My body was a set of lines, not much between. The only previous work experience I had was as a shop assistant in Superdrug, shortly after leaving school – heaving cartons and boxes up and down the stairs while trying to burn off everything I ate, and avoid being stuck behind the till because it would require me to stand still. I wanted a job that was physically demanding, and in cleaning, I got it. Left to my own devices, I could plug in music from my little mp3 player and blitz an entire building in a matter of hours. I was rarely called by my name. So it has been in almost every establishment I’ve worked, from BAE offices to a small industrial site. I’m usually “the cleaner”. A shadow on the wall.
Such is the nature of the job, and it has its pros and cons. The isolation that often accompanies cleaning suits my nature. It took working at the Nick for me to see things differently – the social aspects of work life. Being accepted into a wider group, where a teabag left on a newly-wiped surface or mud tracked over the floor, was at least reported with an apology. Where I was called by name, included in whip-arounds and card signings, all the black humour that broke like waves around an office. It’s the little things that make a difference between *just another job* and a second home.
OK, these things don’t always make up for rotten wages and piss-poor management. I’m still slogging through a tax underpayment from two employers ago. But acknowledgement that you do exist, and are helping to keep things running, can make a person feel less like a nobody. Especially when they’re doing a job that few people seem to want.
Why am I telling you this? Because it’s important to me. Because as someone who’s been a cleaner for a decade, while slowly regrouping thoughts and progressing in recovery from an eating disorder, I’ve found a pattern in people’s reactions when I tell them what I do for a living.
“Aren’t you a bit overskilled for that?”
“Why would you want to do it?”
“Isn’t that really boring?”
“Haven’t you got anything better to do?”
“At least it keeps you fit.”
Yes, it does. And believe it or not, there are quite a few fitness perks to get out of cleaning – not to mention the flexibility of hours if you have children, or are studying, as I was. When I left college and attempted university, I fell on my arse back into a relapse. Coming home was one of the most humiliating (and expensive) times of my life, and it certainly didn’t help to improve relations with my family, who had hoped I’d be able to progress beyond anorexia. I’d taken a creative writing course in line with English Literature and Language, with no clear idea what I wanted to do with them or what I hoped to achieve. I still lived one day to the next, with little forward-planning. But as a writer, the degree seemed a good thing to have under my belt. When it all went tits-up, I fell into the first job I could find – as the assistant of a private-hire cleaner, who taught me all she knew and trained me up as her apprentice.
Since then, I’ve dotted from one place to the next, rarely settling for long, and this mainly due to hours being cut or wages reduced. There’s nothing you can do about it, or so it seems. As a cleaner, you’re the afterthought. At least it’s forced me to be more flexible, to roll with unforeseen circumstances.
I don’t know whether it’s the same for other people across other sectors. I don’t know if they are treated as human detritus too. But “hygiene operatives” are still getting the thin end of the wedge, with the rise of zero-hour contracts and pay that rarely goes beyond the national minimum wage. For all the alleged increases in full-time work, post-recession, I’m still hard-pressed to find anything remotely close to 40 hours a week in cleaning, on the UK’s numerous job sites. I can count on two fingers the jobs I’ve had where a pay rise was given as part of the contract, let alone as a sign of goodwill or acknowledgement of long-term employment.
If by this point you’re thinking “well, you get what you give – go and find something better”, then you have a narrow and privileged outlook on life. Sometimes, there is no “better”. And if every cleaner decided to try something else, there would be no one left to clear up the world’s mess. Why should our lives be made difficult when we’re just trying to get on with a legitimate job?
With the reassurance of a regular income, I can spend evenings writing things I’d like to one day have published. A few hours of activity allows me to unwind and chill out later. Some people are like this. My Nanna has recently turned 70 and still does all her own housework and gardening, while helping Granddad with the cattery and kennels business they’ve kept for over 30 years. In the evenings, she prefers to relax – but she’ll rarely settle during the day. There’s the satisfaction aspect, too, which she shares – difficult to describe, if you hate cleaning (or are just disinclined to be move about much.) But I’m quite happy being left to my own devices, beating the hell out of a filthy warehouse floor while ticking over ideas for writing later.
At the moment, I’m at a crossroads of what has come before and what will come next. The eating disorder has less of a hold, I’ve got to the point where I don’t suffer panic attacks for the simple fact of staying still. Missing a gym session isn’t a crisis, I can always go in another day. I used to think my preferences were symptomatic of the illness, and while they have at times exacerbated the exercise addiction, I work to my own terms now. When you begin to control what has controlled you, the world opens up a bit more. I’ve decreased activity levels over the years, to the point where it has less of an impact on my health and social life, writing and relationships. This was the deal I set after hospital. Get well, or die, or end up back inside, because no bugger else should have the job of caring for me if I’m able to do it myself. And yes, it has taken a while. Yes, I’ve procrastinated. Being thrown out of my comfort zone is often a blessing in disguise – though at the moment, I’m struggling to find the positives.
Then there’s the lack of experience in anything else. Sticking with one line of work for a decade is great if that’s all you want to do, but it does make your CV look static. While it’s nice to think this wouldn’t affect my chances, it has had an impact on initial contact, even before the chance of interviews – the email response (if it comes) usually runs to “have you done anything else…?” Which is understandable, given that they likely want someone with an inkling of what to do. Except, no, I haven’t, and probably don’t. I wouldn’t blame anyone for being reluctant to take a punt.
Not everyone gets into this gig because they have nothing better to do. Some people enjoy it, some make a profession out of it by building up their own company. It’s a job that, like anything else, needs to be done, and relies on self-motivation – the will to go that step further, whether it’s acknowledged or not. I like to work hard because it feels right to do so. You can do yourself proud in any role and find a few little personal wins along the way. Mine, for the last four and a half years, was the ability to stave off wearing a company uniform while blitzing the Nick; strangers who came on site often mistook me for a civvie, until I showed my card. Listening to a supposedly-illicit iPod every hour of my shift, I was able to blot out anything I didn’t want to hear (which given the environment, is priceless.) Independence is a double-edged blade. Working on contract through a hopelessly inept company, I rarely took holidays because the palaver that ensued wasn’t worth the effort (nor was the mess I’d come back to) and often ran short of stock when a delivery went AWOL or no one bothered to answer texts. But the guys I worked alongside everyday, more than made up for these setbacks.
I had a name. A presence, as part of a team where the work was appreciated, and we pulled together to keep a battered old building alive. And if I can wangle it, I’m going to try and get that back, because sitting here in a darkening room, with the sun having gone in and rain approaching, I feel like I’ve missed a step on the stairs. If nothing else, I’ve two weeks of paid rent to sort myself out, to find something else – anything, which will mean I can provide for myself again.
I gave up everything to come here. To start again, on better pay, in a quieter house. For the “mess” that’s occurred as a result of my decisions, I can only hope that this a temporary blip and not a one-way track to the dole. And if I’m to be shaken out of my comfort zone, I’m taking others with me.