Honouring cleaners

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Office spaceSpotting Ben before he starts his shift I ask him how his week is going. 'Good. But it's only Monday!' He laughs and throws me a smile. On Saturday I ask him the same question. He runs his hand through his shock of dark, wavy hair. 'Good. Only one day to go!' The smile is tired, but still there.

Ben is one of the service workers whose legions roam office buildings long after the office workers have gone home for the day. Every evening as the office workers finish, they begin: the cleaners, the tidy-uppers, the near-invisible army of people who pick up the day's mess.

They collect balls of paper that didn't quite make the bin, strap on vacpacs to suck up the sugar spilled from lunchtime coffees, and mop away shreds of paper towel that have been ground into the toilet tiles by loafer clad feet.

The office workers return the next morning to find their workplace pristine. They take this their due: in this world some clean and some are cleaned for, and the latter do not contemplate the former, other than to cast aspersions upon them when a bin is found unemptied.

For four years Ben has cleaned my office. On a good night he can clean the whole building in two hours. On a bad night, if the toilet has been vandalised or a child has smeared cake across the lobby, it can take three.

One night after knockoff I stop for a chat. He mentions a second job. And a third.

I tell him he deserves a break. He laughs. 'I just had one. I didn't have a main job for two months. I spent every day looking for a job. That was enough holiday. Now I want to work as much as I can.' On his 'holiday' Ben cleaned our office every evening, and worked all weekend.

The average full time employee in Australia works 44 hours a week. The people in the office Ben cleans pull 35. During his busiest weeks Ben slogs through over 70.

This is an improvement. For seven months while he was studying his working day was truly Herculean. By 3.00am he was out of bed and pushing a vacuum cleaner around an office building. At 8.30am he arrived at a mechanics workshop. Six hours later, his hands black with grease, he went home for a 15 minute lunch before heading into the city to sit in a lecture hall blearily taking notes.

The moment the drone of the lecturer's voice ended he replaced it with the hum of another vacuum as he frantically cleaned the offices of the university. Then he staggered back to class for 90 more minutes of weary learning.

At 9pm he drove to my office to clean up after me.

On a good night he would be in bed by midnight. Fourteen hours of work. Three hours of class. Three hours of sleep.

I tell him this schedule sounds punishing. He responds that 'there were two days I worked like that, but all the other days it was alright because I didn't have the course'. When I note that classes or not he still had to work 14 hours he laughs. 'I had to earn a bit of money, I'm supporting my uncle over here. He was the one who looked after me when I first came.'

Ben arrived in Australia in 2003 to study, supported by his family here and on the subcontinent. His desire to prove worthy of their hopes propels him through seven-day week after seven-day week.

He describes how one morning as a child he and his parents perched on one bicycle to ride to his father's workplace at 5.00am. His father lost sight of the road in the darkness, hit something, and sent them all plummeting into the mud.

'Why did this happen? It's because my dad didn't study that much.' Ben's father was too poor to study, too poor to get jobs needing important-looking bits of paper, and too poor to be able to turn down work that required him to ride miles every morning in the pre-dawn darkness.

Ben is saving every dollar he can to pay for a business degree. While he is eligible for HECS he wants to pay the fees upfront, and has deferred his course so that he can do so.

He works as hard as he does so he won't have to struggle the same way his parents did, and so that he can help his family as they have helped him. 'I gotta lot of responsibilities on my shoulders, this is why I want to do well in life.'

It's getting late, and we head our separate ways. Me to my home, him to the mop cupboard. As I close the door behind me I wave and he flashes me a weary grin. When my colleagues arrive in the morning no-one will notice how conscientiously he has done his job.

Scott SteensmaScott Steensma was third place winner in Eureka Street's 2010 Margaret Dooley Award for young writers. Ben's name has been changed as he wishes to remain anonymous. 

Topic tags: Scott Steensma, ben, cleaners, office workers, margaret dooley



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nice article, hard working guy ... seems like doing Uni. also with his work. When i was @ the Uni. just relax.
Harsha | 09 September 2011


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