Saturday, August 17, 2013

Up at five with the cleaners by Ian Walker (New Society 4 September 1980)

Up at five with the cleaners

It is five in the morning and dark as hell when the N47 bus, standing room only, pulls up opposite the National Westminster Building, London's highest, and disgorges its load on to the empty streets. These women are cleaners. They come into the City from the east End every morning to clean up the banks and insurance companies and government buildings. A kind of invisible workforce, they ghost in at night or in the half-light and then get swallowed up in the busy streets on their way home.

A tiny woman of 72 who has just been cleaning in Old Jury, just past the Bank of England, stands talking to me in the rain. She looks embarrassed when I ask her how much she makes. "Oh, it's not a lot," she says. "Fifteen pound eight pence for ten hours." It's no strain getting up at four? "No, I'm used to it. Don't take no notice. Do you mind if I go now? I like to get in early." A lot of the women are too rushed or too scared to talk. Some aren't paying tax, some aren't declaring all their jobs. Some are just scared, with reason, of anyone who stops them on the street. It start getting light at 5.20.

Of three West Indian women on their way to clean Chartered House, only one doesn't mind being questioned. Her name is Patsy Trotman. A single mother, she lives in Hackney Down with her two children, 13 and 16, and travels here on a night train. She gets £14 for a ten hour week and has been doing it for five years. Why did she start? "Hardships," is all she says. Her friends look anxious. She rejoins them.

Three white women, here to clean the thrity-eighth floor of the Nat West Building, step out of a yellow Escort. The oldest woman, Pearl, has been cleaning at Nat West for 21 years. When she started, she was on £3 7s 6d a week. Now she gets £2.19½p an hour, the top rate for cleaning and double what some cleaners make. Pearl's patch is the director's suite, she says. "Oh, it's lovely. All the wallpaper's suede. It's got a spiral staircase and that."

For young mothers, like the other two, Liz and Diane, this kind of work means they can get home in time to look after the children during the day. Then, at five, they leave home again for the evening cleaning shift. They only go to bed early, they all say, if there's nothing good on television. "We keep going," says Pearl.

I'm joined outside the Nat West skyscraper by Helen Eadie of the General and Municipal Workers Union. Along with the Transport and General, the GMWU is trying to recruit workers in this desperately disorganised and low-paid sector. An ACAS report on contract cleaning is due out later this month. Meanwhile, the only way she can glean any information about wages and conditions is to hang about on the street, and talk to the women on their way to work. She hands out a few leaflets, then later resorts to telling people that she's a journalist, "No one wants to know if you say you're from the union."

Two black women stop long enough to say they work for Office Cleaning Services, the biggest contract cleaners in the country. This started life in 1900 as New Century Window-Cleaning, until the firm realised that windows only need doing once a month whereas offices have to be done daily. It became the OCS in 1930 and now has a turnover of some £70 million a year, having branched out into security, factory cleaning, chemicals, laundries. Of its 25,000 employees, 20,000 are cleaners.

By six o'clock the buses are arriving half-empty. All the cleaners are at work now. It's raining hard. A black woman pops out of the Nat West reception. "Have you got any cleaning work starting today?" she asks. Some employers, it seems, solicit their cleaning staff on the street. In a few hours the office workers will sit down at their clean desks and moan about the rain.

Lola has no time to moan. She is a cleaner at the House of Commons during the day and at the Department of Environment at night. She's Jamaican; her husband died young, in his thirties; and she's brought up her five children on her own. I meet her for lunch in the House of Commons canteen. She is wearing a smart yellow dress with black polka dots, a black bow round her neck. Her hair is straightened, her lipstick and nail varnish are cherry red.

'Tell it to the union'
Until two years ago, Lola was doing nightcleaning at the Post Office in Old Street, starting at ten and finishing at six in the morning. She, as a supervisor, got £45. Ordinary cleaners got £40. Since then she's worked at ITN House, numerous banks, Andmarc Cleaning and the Top Rank disco.

"Work's become a second nature to me," she says. "And I need money to keep my family. You couldn't get any other job to fit in with the kids. They never miss me. Always able to get home at meal times. If I can't fit the job in, I pack it in and get something else."

A member of the GMWU, Lola tries to get women interested in the union wherever she works. She says there's always a lot of petty fighting and niggling, because everyone suspects everyone else is on better money. "Oh, girls, girls, I say, don't make a fight. The union would like to know it all. Tell it to the union."

She is full of stories about cleaners' lockers being rummaged through by managers; about wages not turning up, because the man who was supposed to deliver them had gone and got drunk instead; about a friend of hers who was followed by car all over London to her different cleaning jobs: and about how she would get a few women interested in the union and then find they had been sent off to different offices throughout London. She picks half-heartedly at her ham salad, she tells me she's slimming. "My son likes me fat. He likes to play with me, pinch me." Her youngest son is 13, the eldest daughter is 22.

Lola has a deep calm. She has lived through hard times, doing right by her family and never giving in. She works 53 hours a week at the House of Commons doing the peers' cloakroom and 12½ hours at the Department of the Environment, before she's even started looking after her children.

But it's been like that ever since she came to London from Kingston in September 1961. Married when she was 16, Lola remains undefeated. She laughs when I ask her how old she is? "That's a secret. That's not polite. I'm very old. But for my kids I'm not and for myself I'm not, only when I'm tired." She escorts me from the canteen as far as the gates.

I've often watched the women who clean Thomson House, over the road from where I live, starting at around five in the morning. You see them there, bent down under long strips of fluorescent light in the empty offices, the homes of magazines like Family Circle and Living. Unexpectedly, the doorman said, sure, I could speak to the cleaners, why not? - at 5.30 one morning.

Mopping up in a ground-floor storeroom at Thomson House is Michael. He used to  be a street trader in Lambeth till the market closed down about ten years ago. "It's a shame for a business that died a natural death," he says. "It was the supermarkets that finished it." Still, he reckons this work isn't too bad, "Jovial, you know. Bit of a laugh with various things. Very, very seldom there's a bad word." Michael is 64 but he says he has no plans to retire.

His family came over from Cork in the 1800s and worked as street traders from that time. "One family life," he muses, sitting on a red plastic chair on the floor he was cleaning. "From street traders to cleaners." We move next door to the tea-room.

"I was wounded at Alamein, you know, a fragment of shell on the second night," he licks his finger, sticks it in the sugar. "Terrific bombardment. We was all amongst it in the open ground, wasn't we?"

Another man in the tea-room, Benjamin, objects to being called a cleaner. "We're not cleaners. We're general assistants. We do everything. We're handymen." Benjamin is the deputy shop steward (this being press, all the cleaning staff, men and women, are in NATSOPA). He says that they've just got a 60 per cent pay rise, taking them from £74.96 basic to £123. "It's the biggest increase in the print," brags Steve, the shop steward, who's just come in for a cup of tea. The women's basic pay went up from around £30 to £38.

Michael brings in the Sporting Life for Benjamin. "Got more chance of picking his nose," says Steve. Men drink tea while women work: Thomson House is like some vast household.

On the seventh floor, a harrassed-looking West Indian woman is flying around with a pink duster, complaining that the lead on her Hoover doesn't stretch far enough to do all the floor space here. "I've told Steve about it. I don't know," she says. "Hard work and no pay. I do foster-mothering, work in stores. Before I do this, my real job was clothing machinist. I like that. It's more creative. You finish, pick it up, and look at what you do. But this . . . "

She has four children of her own and used to foster three others. "All ages. Fussing and fighting. It's too much since I started this. It knocks me out." I am talking to her in a magazine art department. "I work and I work, and I don't get no pay, and I don't feel happy about it."

She gets here every morning at 5.15. She won't tell me her name or where she lives. She talks fast and angrily, whipping herself up into a frenzy as she careers round the room. "Cleaning's a very hard job, something you do all your life. Emptying, flicking, polishing telephones, cleaning, dusting, flicking, hoovering. Hoovers are heavy things. Some men leave their office that bad. Some ladies are worse. A lot of heavy lifting and flicking."

Not looking up from her work once while she vents her spleen in speech as staccato as her movements, bending and shaking, she says she would love to leave this job, but can't. "Used to be two people on one floor. Now there's only one. Only eight pound a week for extra work. Do two people's work, get eight pound," she spits, then pauses for breath. "You're always disappointed, that's it. The more you do, the less you get." Pinned to the door of this office is the poster for the television version of Arnold Bennett's Clayhanger, "An epic of life, love and family conflict."

The three white women sipping tea on a lower floor (white and black cleaners choose to have separate tea-rooms) do not have to swim against the tide as hard as their black workmate. All working to supplement their husband's wage, and not forced to do another paid job, they can afford to be more relaxed and stoical about life.

Rose and Julia, both in their fifties now, say they started cleaning 30 years ago when they had young children. "We wanted a few bob and, with this, you're back in for the kids, that's it. Then your children grow up, and you've got the day to yourself. It's something to do at the back end of the night," says Rose.

So do they all put their feet up when they get home? "You must be joking. Don't think a woman ever really rests, do you? If I come back again, I'm coming back as a man."

After their rise, these women will take home about £5 a day. They say it's all right, although the cleaners round the corner at The Times get about £10 a day. "We're low-paid to them," Julia says. But at least they all have a job. One of her friends, who cleans a local police station, is about to be laid off: "A cleaning company is going to take over." This happens because contract cleaning is, for employers, preferable to keeping on their own cleaning staff. It means that they avoid the administrative hassle of direct employment, and it removes the need to buy and store cleaning gear. It also tends to work out cheaper.

A nice cup of tea
Julia and Rose both live locally, Marie lives "over the water" in Waterloo. She is younger, 42, and more upwardly aspiring. She went to Miami for her holidays. Julia went to Canvey Island and Rose is due, tomorrow, to go to Margate. "Got a nice break for two weeks now," Rose says, polishing a table top. "Remember to take me galoshes and an umbrella." Rose and Julia say they could never go abroad: they're scared of flying.

Sometime after 9 am, they all start making to go. "This won't get us done will it," says Julia. "Do like a cup of tea, though."

"That's it, innit, like a nice cup of tea," adds Rose.

Office machinery gets shinier and more technical, but the places still get cleaned up with brooms and hoovers. These women make in a week what a shorthand typist can make in a day.

Later that day, early evening, I walked down to the river to Waterloo Bridge. A jazz band was playing to some kids sitting on the steps before the South Bank concert hall. Smart-looking couples were out on the terrace cafe. The late summer light made the Thames look bluer than it really is. To the east of Waterloo Bridge, on the skyline, were all the office blocks that will, this evening or tonight or sometime in the early morning, get cleaned up by the women who'll come in on the night buses and trains.
4 September 1980


Mattowar said...


I just wanted to thank you for posting these articles on your blog. I'm new to Ian Walker. I've just been to Berlin and was looking for some further reading on the place. After ordering his Zoo Station book, I was looking for some more information on Walker and his work in the meantime, so it's brilliant to be able to read some of his writing here.

Thanks again,


imposs1904 said...

Hello Matthew,

Cheers for the kind words. I'm glad that you've been able to discover more of Ian Walker's writings.

Mattowar said...

Just finished Zoo Station and still coming to terms with how good it is. Crushing too. I almost didn't want to come to the end and have to deal with it being the end of the line.
Thanks again for posting his articles, it really is a big deal to be able to read his work which would be otherwise lost.