Friday, 6 March 2015

A Union?...It's a good idea..

Maryam pauses. Then carries on pushing the pillow into its' crisp cotton case. She doesn't turn around.

“A union”, she says, with what sounds like suspicion in her voice.

I'm done for, I'm thinking, I've gone and blown it, she's going to grass on me. It was way to early to introduce this subject.

After what feels like minutes she says, matter-of-factly, “It's a good idea”.

Relief washes over me.

“But”, she says, flattening the pillow and propping it up against the head board and reaching for another. “You need to be careful. People here, they gossip. You need to be careful about who you talk to”.


“Also, people when they finish they want to to just get home. It's hard to get everybody to stay and meet”.

“Hmm. That's true”, I murmur. Time is impossibly tight and after today with Maryam I'm going to be on my own. Getting to even speak to people is going to be difficult.

She walks past me, not looking at me, dust cloth in hand, flicking it down on to the glossy desk, and wiping across it, flicking it into dustless corners, and moving on around the room wiping, smoothing, adjusting, checking.

                                                   This, 16 times over and over and over....

The conversation's over, so I go out, grab the hoover, and zoom all over the room. Minutes later we're done and with the click of the room's heavy door behind us, we move to the canteen for our 30 minute unpaid lunch break.

The 30 minutes isn't really 30 minutes. Included in this time is: throwing your dirty linen down the chute - and waiting for it to clear if it's in use; emptying your rubbish bag and recycling (glass, plastic and newspapers); waiting for the elevator (sometimes it's five minutes if the other floors are busy); filling up your dwindling cleaning fluids from the big vats on the wall down in the basement; washing your hands; going to the toilet; reloading your trolley with linen (sometimes twice a day); searching for linen in a different cupboard if it's run out; tracking down complimentary slippers or pens or water bottles when they've run out; moving on to other rooms when a guest has a Do Not Disturb sign on the door; and at the end of the day, waiting for the supervisor to check off your rooms - all these other time consuming tasks are all supposed to be magically included in your twenty minutes per room and your 30 minute lunch break.

What this means is that your lunch break is either 20 minutes or you finish late. And you don't get paid for overtime.

I think you can judge a job three ways, as to whether you can find some happiness in it.

One – By desire - you're doing something you want to do. You find it fulfilling and worthwhile and you feel good that you're doing it and telling people that you're doing it. Maybe it's your vocation. Two – Your time – How much time you can reclaim for yourself whilst in it. You don't really want to do it, you're not motivated to do it, but you get to take some time for yourself inside it, to do some of what you Do want to do. Or three – The people. You can't really stand the job, it's really pretty soul destroying and pointless, but, you work with good people and you get to talk to them and interact with them and joke about it all and that keeps your spirits up and gives you a friendship network.

This job. In housekeeping. It doesn't really give you much of any of the above. Ok, there's a sense of completion with each perfectly made room, and the chatter after work in the locker room can be fun, if you understand it, and sure, some people will become friends, but, with the 50% staff turnover and language barriers it's tough, and the lonely, monotonous, terminal cycle of cleaning room, after room, after room, with no time to steal for a break or to check any emails or to sit and rest and daydream for a moment, have a chat by the water cooler or make a tea or go outside for a cigarette, just makes it such a sad slog.

I've cleaned houses before, as have some of the other women here, and there you get around £10ph cash in hand, you work at your own pace and there's no supervisor breathing down your neck. But that's even more precarious than this.

                                                     Oi! Get your mitts off...

We sit down with our plates, piled high with free hot food. It's the only hot meal many of us will get all day. The canteen is small and lowly, and seats about 50. It's a 70s style one counter job with a meat and veg option, a salad bar, two free hot drinks machines, and a flat screen telly on the wall running 24-7.

People on their own are either watching it blankly or staring down at their phones. The tables are arranged in twos, fours and sixes. Supervisors seem to be dotted around everywhere. People sit in their own language groups. If you don't speak the language, it's hard to come and strike up a conversation knowing that the ease and flow will crunch to a halt as you make everyone speak English.

I open my mouth to re-start the conversation with Maryam but she's got her phone out and is scrolling through it between mouthfuls of lasagne. Looking up I spot the agency manager, a besuited, round, Romanian woman, standing at the door, scanning the canteen. Her eyes fall on me and stay there. She strides, unsmiling, towards me....

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