Freshers' week fun? Not for the university cleaners

Beer and fast food Freshers' week is the "worst week of the year" for university cleaners

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Students are returning for the new university term. There will be parties, long beery nights and bleary late mornings. It's the binge-fest of freshers' week.

But for cleaners at one London university, it is the "worst week of the year" when there is "double work".

The students and the cleaners share the university campus; they both work here, but to very different timetables. The cleaners are on the way to work before some of the students will be on the way home.

University cleaners start work from 04:00, travelling through the dark streets on buses from the edges of the capital.

Mostly Spanish speakers from South and Central America, many will have begun their journey more than an hour earlier.

While the new term means freshers' parties for students, there's a different kind of freshening going on for the cleaners.

They will have cleaned the toilets, emptied the bins, swept the floor, wiped the desks, while the students and their teachers will have been asleep. It's a double life for this university.

Before dawn

As the first students begin to come through the doors in the morning, holding on to their textbooks and takeaway coffees, the cleaners have already finished their shifts.

Mop and bucket The morning for cleaners begins while the students are still sleeping

But they haven't finished working. Many will have multiple jobs, a few hours at a time, criss-crossing London by bus because the Tube fares are too expensive and they're not paid for the travelling in between.

One university cleaner, who wants to remain anonymous, describes his daily timetable and gives his perspective on university life.

He leaves his home at 03:00 for the first of three cleaning jobs. He works shifts from 04:00 - 06:00 and then 06:00 - 16:30 in central London and then finishes with a two-hour shift in south London, between 17:30 and 19:30.

Then he goes home to his three children and gets ready to start work again the next morning.

He works five days a week, but he says he has colleagues who work like this six or seven days a week.

"Sometimes I don't want to wake up. But I can't afford to miss a single day.

"It's dirty. People leave their rubbish on the floor. You think they would appreciate you, but you get into the lift and they turn away from you.

"That affects me. When you're trying to clean the toilets, people get cross. There's a lack of respect - it's very hard.

"Is it because we're cleaners? Because we're foreigners and we don't speak the language?"

It's easy for families to break up, he says. Children without parents around can get into trouble. With no spare cash, people have to borrow and quickly get into high-interest borrowing. Long hours are worked to pay high London rents.

And before making any assumptions about who gets caught up in this cycle, he says he works alongside cleaners who in their own countries had been a lawyer, a psychologist and a teacher. He is a graduate himself, before coming to the UK more than a decade ago.

Invisible people

What's the worst part of cleaning?

He says it's the toilets. And he can't understand how people can leave the bathrooms in such a bad way.

Cleaning offices Cleaners share the university building with students they rarely meet

Just as crushing is the sense of not being valued, particularly in an educational institution, where students debate ideas of equality, labour rights and social justice.

"I thought people would behave well, they would have courtesy, good manners."

Instead, he says, even when he has been taking out a bin from below someone's desk they've refused to acknowledge him.

These might be corridors of learning. But someone still has to clean them.

Not speaking much English, competing at the most precarious end of the temporary labour market, cleaners are vulnerable to being exploited. It's part of the reason that he doesn't want to be identified.

A previous contractor owed the cleaners money for three months, he says.

They can't take their concerns to the university, because they work for an international outsourcing company. And there have been long-running campaigns over pay and conditions.

But without being part of the university staff, the cleaners still share the same buildings, a parallel set of footsteps in the libraries, the lecture halls, the classrooms, unseen during the hours before dawn.

He says they see the photos of families on the desks each day, they prepare the rooms. Without any sign of self-pity, he says: "Some of these tables are cleaned with tears."

It's a tale of two cities invisible to one another.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 393.

    Could we please stop circulating the myth that "all students" "love" Freshers week? Many students that have interests besides binge drinking and drunk sex feel an isolated minority. Student Unions HAVE to take action and make the voice of students not partaking in the Freshers madness heard. Every campus counselling service can attest to that!

  • rate this

    Comment number 392.

    Most of us that went to university did it, and students will continue to do it. It's a 'rite of passage' so to speak, but it is for the most part a passing phase. We grow up, we learn, we become better people.

    You want to do a story about victims, how about targeting insurance companies that rip people off, especially the vunerable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 391.

    What's the other part where he doesn't want to be identified? no work visa is it? Surely being identified is important as you will get more support for your upstanding in your community. Of course another possibility is that he may only exist in the authors mind.

  • rate this

    Comment number 390.

    It is quite simple make ALL the students clean up whether they are involved or not and have the cleaners stood over them whilst they do it, that will eventually teach them to behave with respect to others, however there are better things for us to comment on, like the Daily Mils loathsome harrasement of Ed Milliband,

  • rate this

    Comment number 389.

    My halls didn't have cleaners and students often cleaned up the union in order to gain free tickets to popular nights.

  • rate this

    Comment number 388.

    is this topic really debatable? is this all the bbc can come up with . this isnt news

  • rate this

    Comment number 387.

    I am 23 years old and am a full time student, along with working a full time job as a nightclub manager. I go out of my way to help cleaners working at the university, and my club, and have on occasion helped them out with actual cleaning as I know how hard it can be for them. I'm sure there are many others who do the same as me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 386.

    For someone who doesn't speak the language he was certainly able to get the job and talk to the media Hmm

  • rate this

    Comment number 385.

    Shoot, I didn't realise it was freshers week. I'll be down the local college pub on friday for some easy pickings :-)

  • rate this

    Comment number 384.

    As long as the Carnage nights remain banned everything will be ok

  • rate this

    Comment number 383.

    I am white and British, toolmaker by trade, now a street cleaner as my part of Britain does not make stuff town, looked down on while cleaning up sick by the sick makers and middle class alike, What keeps me going is retired old folk telling me im doing a good job, The only people worth anything and respectful in my opinion.We should be more valued(and better paid).Nuff said.

  • rate this

    Comment number 382.

    I can't really blame them. I've worked at the Freshers' Fair at my university for two years now. As an employee of the SU, it was my job to encourage the impressionable freshers to attend all of the union's events, most of which involve alcohol in some way or another.

  • rate this

    Comment number 381.

    211. Citizen Blue "What is this, have a pop at the under 25s week?"
    Well it makes a change from the usual HYS staple of 'what should we do with fat people?' Most now defending students are quick to pull on the jackboots at any mention of 'obesity'. Needless to say I agree that stereotyping isn't helpful, and that it has become our national pasttime explains much of what is wrong with this country.

  • rate this

    Comment number 380.


    If you don't learn from history ...making the same mistakes again and again.

    That tired old argument ? IF lots of people (including world leaders) study history and IF they KEEP making the same old mistakes - which they sure do...
    ...THEN logically it follows that their history degrees have taught them nothing and are therefore not fit for purpose !
    I rest my case !

  • rate this

    Comment number 379.

    Not all students enjoy the whole "fresher's week" thing. I think it's the way that this type of behaviour is promoted and encouraged that irritates me. As a student, there is intense peer pressure to binge drink, not to mention masses of marketing you are the target of for clubs and similar institutions, as well as massive promotion of the lifestyle in popular media. Something needs to be done.

  • rate this

    Comment number 378.

    As a night worker in city centre locations I dread threshers week.

    The numbers of youngsters completely out of their faces is a horrible thing to see. Thankfully many seem to learn the lesson from drinking 101 and know their limits for the next three years.

  • rate this

    Comment number 377.

    357. gwen Your flat sounds like mine! One or two people in our halls were a bit untidy, but we would have been embarrassed if the cleaner came in and found a disgusting mess so used to clean it the night before. . That said, some people in halls are very messy and immature and I doubt they would be that considerate

  • rate this

    Comment number 376.

    I remember getting along with my dorm’s cleaner very well. She cleaned every room every day and not just our dorm but the whole SC block. Everyone at Uni has a work-filled day, be it the cleaners, lecturers, admin and of course the students.

    A little respect (that some people find a challenge) goes along way to make everyone’s day that little bit better.

  • rate this

    Comment number 375.

    what? middles class children don't know how look after themselves, well I never!

  • rate this

    Comment number 374.

    'those on vocational courses are paid by employers and study at technical college part time whilst being paid.'
    OK . I see now.

    'back in the 70's you got a grant you COULD live off'
    Or a parental contribution which could include a contribution to fees. My parents paid. Not all did. The element for board & lodging was a bit less than the half board hall fees.


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