A Cleaner’s Diary

A few summers ago, Gareth Rees was working as a cleaner at HM Naval Base, Portsmouth. After witnessing bullying, incompetence and inefficiency, he was shocked to learn that the cruel and humourless management had made him a marked man…

July 1st

Two days before the new management took over and, as I was throwing out rubbish, one of the other cleaners asked if I was going to be a part of the coming regime. I had a sense of foreboding about the change because the current management often described the rooms as “filthy” – and this was after we had cleaned them rather than before. They had an unrestrained urge to condemn. I wondered if the new regime would be just as lacking in mirth and spirit. In spite of my trepidation, I said to the other cleaner that I would be joining the new set-up.

I asked my line manager, who I shall refer to from now on as M1, if I would be able to work in the afternoon instead of the morning. She said she was too busy to discuss it now and told me to drop by the office the following morning. This I did twice that morning but both times I was told M1 was not available. This was not a good portent. I think it is disrespectful to mess with people’s time or to say, in effect, ‘I am more important than you.’

A few days after the management change-over, I was asked to make sure I cleaned the microwave ovens in the utility rooms on all three floors of my building. (My job description only mentioned two floors.) I hadn’t intended to clean the microwave ovens because there was a notice asking the users of the ovens to be responsible for their cleanliness. And I said this to M1. Despite this, I did as bid and cleaned the ovens.

Walking home, I felt that all was not well at work and I resolved to write things down.


July 6th

As I arrived to collect my keys and swipe the next morning, M1 said to me, in front of the other cleaners, that she would visit me later in order to demonstrate how to clean a microwave oven. After years and years of looking after my homes, looking after my children, wiping bums and working as a cleaner for three years, I’m told, in effect, I don’t know how to clean a microwave. Was this welcome to government by humiliation? I think management call it ‘training’. I thought of the abuse of language.

M1 did indeed come to demonstrate how to clean a microwave oven. I felt a mixture of embarrassment and anger. After she’d rubbed awhile vigorously, she withdrew her cloth and I couldn’t help but remark that the cloth showed no mark of dirt. Not surprising since I’d already cleaned the oven. She told me I hadn’t cleaned it which of course made me out to be a liar. To try and prove her point, she set to with even greater vigour on the inside of the oven until at last she was able to gain a little marking on the cloth and she was able to announce, ‘There you are, filthy.’ It wasn’t. Before she left, she ran a finger along a shelf and found some dust. She described the shelf as ‘black’. It wasn’t.

The full force of my fury didn’t really hit me until I reached home. I had to express it. Before the new management took over, some of its people came to talk to us from Bristol. There was rhetoric about ‘team work’ and zero tolerance of the usual – racism, sexism, bullying. One of them left a card with words like,‘don’t hesitate to call if…’ I dug out the card, went to the Peace Internet Café and fired off an email about management intimidation. Writing the email soothed my anger. But I wasn’t sure it was the right thing to do. Shouldn’t I have tried to deal with the matter directly with the person concerned? Well yes, if I’d been feeling serene. But I wasn’t and I didn’t want to risk a fruitless, finger-pointing argument. I mentioned nobody by name in the email. I suppose I was putting down some kind of marker.


July 7th

A bowl for the toilet brush in one of the disabled toilets was missing so I asked another manager, M2, for a replacement. It was promised but not delivered.


July 10th

Defective toilet reported. Later on I noticed Sue, one of the other cleaners, was absent. Since nobody was covering, I offered to. I hoped someone in management would have said, ‘Thank you.’ It seems it’s not management policy to express appreciation. Why? Well, it’s your job and the appreciation is in your wage. A barren attitude, I think, and the result for me is that I won’t be offering to cover again. No action on defective toilet.


July 11th

Defective toilet still not dealt with.


July 20th

Supplies of cleaning materials are intermittent. No floor cleaner. I think deep down there is a place called pride of work beyond the money you make. It’s annoying when, due to lack of equipment, you can’t do the job properly. And still, there’s no bowl for the toilet brush. Not good for hygiene. I suppose in mitigation, the management duo is new to the job.

After four weeks, my request to work in the afternoon instead of morning has not been addressed. Good management, I think, addresses the concerns of employees with alacrity. I’m sniffing a bad odour of, at best, forgetfulness and, at worst, contempt.

Perhaps M2 is inexperienced in management and she compensates for this through an excessive attachment to rules. She objected to the presence of my jacket on the coat hook in my cleaning materials space and said it was against health and safety. I showed her how I’d jammed the door open with a dustpan and told her it was against fire regulations. I also said that trying to drag along a heavy vacuum cleaner whilst at the same time trying to push open a large door risked a heart attack. If you obeyed all the rules, the job wouldn’t get done.

At one point the word ‘disciplinary’ was used. Blimey, I’m amazed at this punitive attitude and the assumption that the workers are intrinsically recalcitrant. It’s reminiscent of the worst school of the many I attended.

M1 commented on how, every time she passed, I always seemed in or around the visitors room. The way she said it made me feel I was some kind of suspect. I said that it was my HQ and that, mercifully, it had a window. Operating in windowless corridors keeps putting me in mind of the bowels of a ship.

It’s demeaning having to justify myself.


July 24th

Been without glass cleaner for ages. Paper towels promised but not delivered.


Aug 1st

The maintenance man told me he overheard management talking about me and to watch out. He warned me that I might be ‘a marked man’. I heard a fragment from a radio at home, cleaners are the most bullied group in the work-force. Hardly a revelation. Cleaners, traditionally, are women and, after children, they are the most bullied group in society throughout history.

A problem with bullying is that a bully doesn’t know he or she is doing it. Bullies actually think they are righteous. And for the bullied? Well, it’s the way of the world and objecting is hardly worth it if it means losing a job you desperately need.


Aug 6th

Back at work after a four day break. My uniform shirt was missing. It felt spooky.


Aug 7th

It seems that M2 made a swoop yesterday. I didn’t ask why she took my shirt. I want to talk as little as possible to her.

Vindictive mind games are going on. The managers seem to be deeply unhappy people who are externalising their problems onto the workforce which doesn’t want to risk jobs by fighting back.

M2 presented me with a pair of uniform trousers and opened up the disabled toilet so that I could put them on. The trousers actually bore the words ‘Corporate Trousers’. I didn’t mind the uniform shirt but this was a step too far. I returned the trousers and said they didn’t fit. And it was true anyway.

Have been transferred to Britannia, a building that stinks from years of people having pissed all over the floor. It begs the question why someone who supposedly doesn’t know how to clean a microwave oven is assigned to clean this most challenging of places. I have to be wary of paranoia but I wonder if this isolation is a deliberate policy. And of course, the danger of paranoia increases with isolation. I’m alone here and trying to clean what can’t be cleaned.

I remember from school history something about anti-combination legislation. It was to reflect bosses’ concerns about workers combining to form unions or maybe combining just for a natter. But we’re social animals and there’s a need for a natter. It doesn’t mean the work has to stop.


Aug 29th

Back from a most uplifting break of five days which involved a lunch in Bath, dinner in Wales, a night in a converted mill house in Yorkshire and attending my friend Charlie’s gig in London. My uplift went into swift reverse the moment I returned to work. At the strange ceremony during which management hand out the keys to us cleaners, M1 announced that my toilets were ‘filthy’ and that M2 would be along to show me how to do them. That word ‘filthy’ again. Even though I knew that the word said more about the speaker than my toilets, I nevertheless felt punched. It was the microwave affair all over again. Sooner or later I’m going to have to deal with this management by humiliation.

M2 came to demonstrate how to clean the toilets. I wondered how my life been reduced to this absurd scene. At one point, I asked why she didn’t get on her knees to which she replied, ‘Oh, you don’t do that.’ I was incredulous with the thought of a cleaner who doesn’t get down on the knees. M1 might have done a few days in cleaning school, so she says, but it’s very different doing the job every day, week in, week out. I think it’s weakness of management: someone who doesn’t do the job criticises somebody who does.

Furthermore, if there is such a thing as a cleaning school, why aren’t us cleaners sent to this? Perhaps because if there was training, we’d become skilled workers and wages would have to reflect this. It wouldn’t make sense for a company like this to pay us fairly. Hospital superviruses are the price for being cheap about cleaners.

Sometimes I wonder if sexism is operating here, if the thought lurks that men can’t be trusted to clean. Would a forty year old woman with children have been subjected to this? After the toilet cleaning demonstration, M2 asked me to go to the office to sign a piece of paper. I didn’t look at what I was signing and I feared I’d been set up in some way.


Sept 1st

Went to a Health and Safety talk. ‘Lone working’ was referred to as a potential health hazard. ‘Lone working’ is what I do. I miss my old mate Hayley. We often used to work together and there was much hilarity as well as heart-to-heart stuff. I saw her as I left for home and she said she wasn’t happy at work: ‘I feel as though I’m being watched.’

Well, maybe I’m not the only one. Earlier, while getting supplies from Sharon because of management’s consistent inconsistency in this matter, I passed through the abode of the maintenance lads. ‘How’s morale, lads?’ I asked. The answer came in the form of laughter.


Sept 6th

No supplies, toilet rolls, washroom cleaner, mop…


Sept 7th

Still no supplies.


Sept 10th

Still no supplies. M2 said a complaint had been made about one of my dormitories. It was left general, nothing specific such as dust on a window sill, for example, just to help me a bit. You wonder sometimes if this is deliberate, generalising, to keep us workers in check. There’s a complaint about Mess 8. ‘Spring clean the whole place, top to bottom,’ comes the order.


Sept 11th

Guess what? Still no supplies but it doesn’t matter because most of the morning is spent in the classroom studying safety issues again. The remote corporate bosses value our health and that’s nice to know. The guy running the show seemed a pleasant fellow. He told us that the company was keen on a good health and safety record because it was important in gaining new contracts. So we were there, not so much for our interests, but for the company’s. The guy also told us how his wife berated him for standing on a wheelbarrow so that he could reach blackberries growing over his shed.

He asked us to imagine we were PR people and what we might say to the press if a major accident happened to the company. I said, ‘Hiya and welcome to the scene. Body parts are falling all around like confetti.’ This got a good laugh. I can’t imagine a better job than being a comic.

I liked the other people and it was lovely to be in company instead of isolated on the ground floor. People were very funny but also impressive in their seriousness. In the end, though, the whole thing turned into a massive expression of fury with management. It was all about that method of intimidation in which negatives are highlighted and positives ignored. It was also about being talked down to as though you are a lesser human being.

Hearing all this was a great relief to me. It relieved my paranoia, the sense that I was being singled out in some way for special ill treatment. I am far from being the only one.


Sept 12th

Supplies finally arrived late morning in the form of one mop-head! Was assured the rest would be delivered the following day, that is ten days after the order went in.


Sept 13th

My heart missed a beat when the loudspeaker boomed out my name. Instructed to go to reception. I ignored it at first, as it seemed a rude form of address. If someone wants to see me, they can come to me. But I was worried that maybe a family member was ill so I went.

I was ushered into an office where M1 was present and wearing a face of theatrical sternness. There was another person present who I did not know. I was beginning to think something was going on here that legal people call “abuse of process”. I mean, it was two against one.

Anyway, now came the charge. I’d been spotted sitting on a bed reading a book. I was going to say that I’d been cleaning the pages but it wouldn’t have gone down well. I didn’t deny the allegation and felt like saying, ‘So what? I plead guilty to the equivalent of making a phone call home.’ What I actually said was that I might have been doing my job if management had been doing theirs. I might have been mopping the toilet floors if I’d been supplied with a mop-head I’d been requesting for ages.

I accepted, of course, that M1 had to investigate the complaint. What I didn’t like was the Tannoy boom and the traipse through the gravity and the stares of the offices. It wasn’t the right way to deal with the kind of misdemeanour any person could commit at any time. Or maybe cleaners are not considered by some people as quite up to the mark as human beings, more the untouchables at the bottom of the caste system.

An informal tête à tête was surely what was called for. ‘Gareth, we all live under authority. It’s the way of the world. Don’t take the piss. That way, crucifixion will eventually come.’

M1 started mentioning an official warning and I could feel something breaking inside me. I prefer to please than displease, prefer harmony to conflict. Of course I do. I’m also in terror of rejection and disapproval. However, it’s time to employ the adult part of myself, the one who is getting close to blowing a whistle on this village fascism masquerading as robust management. I’ll follow prescribed procedure and go down the line to the next level of management. I’ll write a letter.


The above is an excerpt from the book Read Rees by Gareth Rees, published by 137 Albion Road books. But it here.

Photography by UK Government [OGL (http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/doc/open-government-licence/version/1/)], via Wikimedia Commons