Author exclusive: Dishing the Dirt
Who are the people we pay to clean our toilets, to make sure our kitchen surfaces aren’t a hotbed of sinister viruses? Who makes our beds, does all the ironing, polishes the windows, scrubs the bath and takes out the rubbish?
The UK’s domestic cleaners, the very many thousands of them, are a silent army upon whom the nation heavily relies. Their absence, should they ever abruptly disappear, would be acutely felt - because without them, what then?
Made up almost exclusively of immigrants - the vast majority of them women in pursuit of a better life than the one they’ve left behind - our cleaners are a workforce we simply couldn’t do without. Never in history have more people employed others to tidy up after them. Where once domestic help was a comparative luxury, the preserve of those who could afford it, it’s now a factor
of everyday modern life. They visit us frequently, every week, sometimes more, and we pay for their services even when we can’t strictly afford to do so. We cannot do without them because they perform the jobs we no longer want to do ourselves, and so we trust them with our keys and our homes.
But who are these industrious types that start work early and finish late in order to help the rest of us function more seamlessly, all in return for minimum wage and few accompanying benefits? Why are they here? What circumstances led them to becoming cleaners in the first place?
And, perhaps most intriguingly of all, what do they make of us, those they toil after?
During 15 months of research, I met with all sorts of domestic help. I found them to be the most industrious and indefatigable of people, wily and entrepreneurial, tough and tenacious, sometimes secretive, often not. Big biceps; bad backs. So much gallows humour. They come from Bulgaria, Romania and Poland, from Indonesia and the Philippines, and are daughters, wives and mothers. They have taught themselves English, have culturally acclimatised, and they pay their taxes (mostly). But they live in the margins, and pass by like ghosts. If we don’t know very much about them, then they know plenty about us, their sometimes rich but just as often cash-strapped employers. They know what we’re really like behind closed doors, they know our secrets, our peccadilloes, how we arrange our underwear drawers. And they hold up a mirror to us, revealing what we’re really like, in kindness and cruelty, in love, and nudity, and occasional madness. They see us like we never could.
They are individuals who have come from far and wide to make our lives a little bit better. Theirs too, in an ideal world.
Nick Duerden is the author of Dishing the Dirt: The Hidden Lives of House Cleaners. His book is available to order here.