I spent 18 months talking to cleaners in the UK – this is what I learnt

By dint of their proximity to us, cleaners often know more about us than we know ourselves – but they all have their own intriguing stories, too

Nick Duerden
Thursday 22 October 2020 10:13
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Below the surface: a silent army of cleaners in the UK offer domestic help but often their role is far more complex and important
Below the surface: a silent army of cleaners in the UK offer domestic help but often their role is far more complex and important

The first time I employed a cleaner was about 10 years ago, and I was of course duly mortified. Mortified, because I couldn’t quite believe I was now in a position to pay someone else to clean up after me, and mortified because my small house – in which my two young children were proving harder to housebreak than the average beagle – was a tip, and I didn’t want the cleaner to judge me disparagingly. My wife and I would spend a couple of hours tidying up before she arrived each week, so desperate were we to make a good impression.              

As it turned out, Dena wasn’t much fussed either way. It quickly became clear that she was more conversationalist than domestic help. She considered cleaning a lowly profession that was ultimately beneath her, the sort of job at the top of nobody’s wish list. She was only doing it now, temporarily, because she’d had to leave her native Bulgaria after her marriage collapsed, and her ex-husband had won custody of their daughter. She was here against her will, then, adopting a needs-must mentality. But Dena had bigger dreams than any mop and bucket could contain.

She’d inform me of these dreams, in detail, over the next few weeks. She liked to talk, ideally over coffee and biscuits (she preferred the ones with dark chocolate on top, necessitating a trip to the corner shop the night before she arrived), and so, around my kitchen table, she’d open up about her complicated life while the clock ticked carelessly on, I missed deadlines, and, for the most part, the Hoover remained unplugged.

Dena fascinated me. If I’d learned anything from her – aside from the fact that her abilities at avoiding the task for which we were paying her £30 a week were impressive, if not exactly laudable – it’s that anyone who finds themselves cleaning for a living far from home must have an intriguing backstory.

And so I set out to write a book about these people who are so prevalent in our everyday lives but who are so easily, and summarily, overlooked. Over the course of a year and a half, I met those who had become cleaners by mistake and bad luck, or else the threat of poverty back home; I met those who worked for ordinary families, for the mentally unwell, and for the filthy rich. Just occasionally, I met with people who cleaned naked for people who liked to be naked, too. It all proved an eye-opening experience.  

Recent statistics suggest that one in three households now employs domestic help; the industry is worth £26bn a year. Where once this workforce was predominantly homegrown, it’s now largely the preserve of immigrants – people from Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia, mostly – doing the work that we can no longer be bothered to do ourselves. And all for the minimum wage.  

By dint of their proximity to us, cleaners often know more about us than we know ourselves, a silent army invited into our homes every week, and afforded an intimate, close-up view of the soap opera elements of our lives that we mostly hide from friends and family. Many of them develop an insight into our collective psyche that psychiatrists would kill for.  

These cleaners were used to witnessing errant husbands conducting careless affairs; they’d become accustomed to just how much we like to horde; just how fussy we are, how weird. One elderly lady would follow her cleaner around the house to make sure every surface was dusted sufficiently well, trailing an impatient fingertip, even, on the keys of her just-polished grand piano just in case; another would endeavour to reintroduce havoc to each room that had been revived, then complain to the cleaner about its continued disrepair. Cleaners are used to seeing loneliness, too. Several felt as much confidante as professional dustbuster.

“Most people,” one told me, “they want a human connection. They see us once a week, and so we build up a relationship, you know? A lot of my clients, they have problems, and they like to talk. So I listen.”  

I came to feel intense admiration for these women – and it was mostly women. People tend not to want strange men in their houses and among their things; strange women, they’re fine with. Like my mother and wife before them – the former from Yugoslavia via Italy, the latter Spain – these women had strayed far from home in order to improve their circumstances, and were homesick but keen to assimilate. The majority who end up here do not arrive by mistake. They’ve cleaned all over the world, and choose the UK, I was told time and again, because – despite increasing political strife, and general intimations of an ugly underbelly – this wonderfully cosmopolitan country of ours still seems to be an ultimately civil and fair place that treats most people equably and justly.  

I thought I was alone in tidying up before my cleaner came each week; seems I’m merely the norm. Another norm is the rise in ethical cleaning companies offering decent pay and workers’ rights. “You Brits are so self-conscious,” an American who has lived here for years told me, “and so true to stereotype: riddled with class guilt, eager to please. Trust me, that makes it easier for cleaners. Don’t change!”

This left me with an almost obscure sense of national pride, proof that the offering of chocolate biscuits can make a small but fundamental difference.  

At some point last year, we stopped employing a cleaner. Money was partly the issue, but the main reason was what so many domestic helpers had told me: that we were raising a generation that would never clean up after themselves because they had learned that this was a subservient task for others to do on our behalf.  

“When I was at school years ago,” one British cleaner said, “we were taught the importance of having a clean house, and how to clean up after yourself. Today, all children learn is how everything should be really easy for them. But is this reality? It’s not my reality.”

So now we try to do something rather old-fashioned, and clean up after ourselves. It’s not easy encouraging a 14-year-old to mop – her iPhone gets in the way – and in our weekly battle to restore homely order, we each realise just how hard it is, how repetitive and tiring. But also worthwhile. It makes me want to write cards to all the cleaners we’d employed over the years simply to say: “Thank you.”

And also: “Please come back.”

You can buy ‘Dishing the Dirt: The Hidden Lives of House Cleaners’ by Nick Duerden here – Independent readers get 10 per cent off the book by entering the code INDY10 at checkout

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