Freshers' week fun? Not for the university cleaners

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education correspondent

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

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.

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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.

Image caption,
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.