Klara, the Cleaner
In the summer, I was abruptly laid off by one of my employers for whom I had worked as a journalist through the student job centre1. In the initial wave of emotion, I was filled with disappointment – mostly at myself, because I had been cut off, because I had not worked hard enough, because I had not proven myself enough and because whenever there was a disagreement in which it pays to stay cool and collected, I always ended up in tears. In what had become my typical MO, I stowed away at home and hid under my mother’s wing, lamenting about how it was getting harder and harder for employers to find skilled workers on the Slovenian labour market, but that I had still been let go. A disaster.
Soon after came the second wave of emotion, which hit even harder – it came before the initial one was able to fully subside. I gasped for air for several days. What now? What are you going to do? What next? I’m normally the one hiding a smirk when people say they didn’t see something like this coming. I keep thinking that one would either have to be stupid or just damn delusional to not even consider that they could be cut off like this. My own self-delusion happened at a moment of peak confidence, resulting from successfully completing my university studies and my readers saying that they trusted my texts and enjoyed reading my work. A total farce.
I will clean, I thought to myself, and I will not dwell on it. It was a done deal.
I am 24 and I am about to start the second year of my master’s studies, for which I had to move from the Haloze region in northeast Slovenia to Ljubljana. I knew that besides a somewhat tarnished self-image, the challenges following my sacking would be mainly financial. Since I regularly received assignments from another Slovenian newspaper and since the pay trickled in every month on the hour, the situation was not urgent. However, I soon received the ‘big’ bill for apartment costs in my mailbox, I also had to pay the rent, the income tax – which I had brought onto myself by working full-time as a student – then there was the occasional necessary trip to the grocery store and even a lingering thought of someday going on a holiday.
Scrolling through the student job centre website, I came upon an ad and started working as a maid in one of the hotels in Ljubljana. The job was advertised as short-term and occasional.
I will clean, I thought to myself, and I will not dwell on it. It was a done deal.
Just watch and listen
I started in late July. I called the number posted in the ad and they took me without an interview – I fit the bill simply because I was prepared to do it. Mirela*, the head maid, would show me how things are done, they told me. I followed her, introduced myself, she dubbed me honey2 and I was hers. The nickname was due to the fact that there was such a high staff turnover at the place that it was difficult for the head maid to remember all the names – it was a universal designation. Despite this, I felt great affection for her. Not only because I would hear honey, honey being called almost constantly, but also because the tone with which she said it over and over again was nothing but warmth. Besides the cleaning, Mirela would sometimes use me as her gofer – I would bring her items which (I assumed) she could easily have reached on her own. There were times when I would come running down from the second floor simply to hand her a broom that stood three metres away from her. Perhaps her warm demeanour was just a sort of manipulation and perhaps this type of understanding can even seem a bit pathetic. But I did not see it that way. I still don’t see it that way.
The task that demanded the most skill, it turned out, was tucking-in the bed sheets. Not because I didn’t think I could do it, but because Mirela thought I couldn’t. Before she let me try it on my own, she showed me her tucking-in technique at least six times. Just watch and listen to Mirela, just listen and watch. Even the curtains needed to be opened with feeling, she coached me. She would examine each shelf that I had dusted and warn me if I had missed a spot. At times it irritated me that she treated even the smallest tasks as if they were rocket science and in those moments I really started to fume (when my journalistic texts are checked in this way, I don’t bat an eyelid, but in this situation, I suddenly saw it as totally excessive). She would give me precise instructions on how to change the linen – I’d been changing sheets since I was a child, for God’s sake! I was roaring inside.
Just watch, just watch
Although I had made it clear several times that I was also prepared to clean the bathrooms on my own, not just the sleeping areas, she would not trust me with this task – her superiors had also instructed her that students did not have to do this. It was difficult work, she explained. On the first day, they seemed surprised when I said that I was not only ready to take off the sheets, but also put them on! Just the idea of taking them off and letting another maid put them on sounded bizarre to me.
Considering the polemic of whether or not I was prepared to do the work in its entirety, I believed that the employers treated the maids well and showed them a lot of understanding. My feeling was that Mirela’s main problem was her somewhat toxic relationship with her co-worker Fatima (with the two quietly and slyly stealing each other’s detergents in a sort of playful vindictiveness). However, as I learned through conversation, although it was difficult to get student workers, there was a gaping difference between how the superiors treated the students and how they treated the maids without a student status, even coming down to different work arrangements. This did not only mean lower pay (the maids without student status were paid 50 cents less per hour than me, so only 5 euro), but there was also no hesitation about which tasks they were given (in their case, the bathroom was a done deal). If I, the student, turned down a task, they would be the ones to pick up the slack – for less pay and despite their much older age. One could perhaps argue that certain tasks were assigned to the non-student maids because cleaning a bathroom requires great precision, which one can only master through practice. This is then seen as an advanced skill, requiring a level of proficiency inherent to experienced workers. Due to the skill level required, certain tasks, such as cleaning the sink or polishing the mirrors, can therefore foster a sense of belonging and give the impression that these tasks are in the domain of the chosen few. The bathrooms, with which the students are not to be trusted, give the maids the feeling that they have something that is only theirs, making them – indispensable.
Seeing the burdens which Mirela had to live with, her requests for me to hand her the broom were suddenly contextualised. Tired, ageing and out of breath, she was still quick and nimble at her work. One-two – and the linen was on.
I started to suspect that something was off, but – importantly – these ‘concerns’ only occupied my mind for a couple of seconds.
Since I was new and since my pay was better than theirs, I simply kept quiet.
In such jobs, after some weeks, the pay-per-hour system gradually turns into a quote-based system, which condenses the workdays and creates time pressure, as I found out later. I still didn’t see this as a problem that really pertained me, since I would not be there for long, I thought – I would just stay long enough to earn the money to pay my rent or to take a trip.
So I kept quiet.
In some cases, hotel maids work for many years without getting permanent contracts. Women in their late sixties sometimes work for a hotel owner every day for over a decade with almost zero holiday time without being permanently employed. These cases of course bear the signs of a permanent work relationship. I have seen this first-hand and it is not that uncommon.
During one of our ‘smoke breaks’, the women started talking about holidays and one of them said she had been working non-stop for months. I asked her directly how this was possible since – considering the amount of work she did – she was sure to be permanently employed. “No,” she replied sternly, “I am not”. She planned to finally ask the boss the following week if she could get some days off, as she couldn’t take it anymore.
When I suggested that this was a very unusual arrangement and that this might be an infringement of her rights as a worker, she did not even change her expression, she just ignored me completely. “Let’s go, girls, let’s go, we have ten more rooms to clean”.
Will I keep quiet again?
Hold your tongue
Any concerns or worries were soon dismissed by my own pretentiousness, which also effectively stifled any feeling that all was not as it should be. At this point, it would be impossible for me to avoid any irony and self-deprecation – as a journalist, I often entered into relationships where I pretended to be this or that (homeless, a prostitute, an immigrant, a member of one group or another). I felt that by telling these stories, I was sharing the pain with other people and that I was doing this in an ethical way. However, as a maid, I actually became part of a group for a change – and in a moment of crisis, I responded questionably, even indifferently. What became important was my own safety, my own wellbeing. I was convinced that this thing that was happening to others was not my problem. Not that I was shying away from taking a risk – there really was no real risk to take. I just didn’t feel like speaking up. In my work as a journalist, I pay close attention to systemic flaws and societal anomalies – I prey on them. But when I spent a moment with the people to whom I could actually lend a hand, I renounced my position as a researcher. Better yet: I renounced not only my position as a researcher, but also my ethical position. Why? Perhaps because I was disillusioned with the journalist’s role due to my personal circumstances (let’s not forget I had been sacked). Since I had experienced my own fall from grace, others, if it happened to them, could also rescue themselves, scraping their own hands and tending to their own wounds. I sensed a fragmentation within me, and a lack of a sense of community. If people don’t care that I’m killing myself behind a computer, why should I care that maids live under such and such circumstances?
The class difference, which was definitely there, since my family could always back me up financially, made me feel as if this was not my fight, since I was only part of the lower class temporarily and since I would be returning to my own class quite promptly.
I didn’t fully understand the maids’ position (I’m ashamed to admit it, but perhaps I even quietly mocked it during those first days). Years spent in other circles had left their mark. At home, I thought about how funny my co-workers were, how trivial their conflicts. In a moment of self-importance I even thought about how something better was waiting for me down the line and that it was simply a miracle that I was working as a maid. It could well be some kind of a double Slovenian graduate complex – someone who cleans hotel rooms together with Bosnian and Montenegrin women and who, in her total apathy, naively believes she knows what’s right. Even the exploitation, which one stops registering after a while and which stops being unusual, was something I couldn’t identify with. I was convinced that this could not happen to me. The class difference, which was definitely there, since my family could always back me up financially (I was a student, but I was not an immigrant or a seasonal worker), made me feel as if this was not my fight, since I was only part of the lower class temporarily and since I would be returning to my own class quite promptly.
Then something extraordinary happened. There was a need to discuss my pay, but I couldn’t bring it up with my superiors, because I was embarrassed. I hadn’t even asked about when I would receive it. Mirela noticed my unease. During a lunch break, she put the question to our superiors instead of me. When I, fearing that I would look like some desperate wimp, started rambling and trying to stop her, she just said quietly: “Hold your tongue, Klara dear. They have to pay out every last cent.” I kept protesting, saying that it was really no big deal and that there was no hurry with the pay. “She is a student, maybe she has no money,” Mirela told them adamantly.
The matter was cleared up. They would pay me at the end of the week.
When you gain some speed, you’ll be a proper maid and then we can work together, Mirela said later. We need to stick together, she added. I began to notice a strong sense of unity within this team, which, on a personal level, did not even get along that well – these women were not even friendly with one another! They did not stick together out of some personal affection or even for their own sake, but because of the principle! They were determined to be reimbursed for what they had created with their bodies, which were (due to their financially subordinate position) the only thing at their disposal. And to act, when necessary, as the head of the hotel, despite being just a maid. I had to wait and hold my tongue. So that she could make things right.
For a moment, I felt that there would soon come a time when I would also make things right for her.
Do I speak up? And if so – how?
I had a lingering thought – I had no right to write or speak about these maids, as I had not been forced to do this work. I don’t want to appropriate the pain that is not mine, I wrote to the Disenz editor and we agreed that any appropriation should be declaratively avoided from the get-go, that is, it is crucial that it is acknowledged as such. Still, this does not resolve one of the responsibility to speak out on certain issues – in which they might even be complicit.
The pain of others should not be appropriated – this still holds true. At the same time, the storytelling impulse is, and always has been, a desire for a certain ‘unity of life’. In our own postmodern era of fragmentation and fracture, narrative provides us with one of our most viable forms of identity – individual and communal, writes Richard Kearney in On Stories. The key function of the narrative memory is compassion, no matter how corny it may sound. And compassion is not always escapism – it is more, as Kant puts it while describing representative thinking in his Critique of Judgement, a way of identifying with as many people as possible in order to become part of the collective moral feeling. So to obtain the exact thing that I was missing while working at the hotel. The question is, what is the role of a journalist (the storyteller conveying the verified stories) who is also a cleaner in this situation? If the chronicles will allow for a simple report on a sequence of events, a story must work to introduce a sense of perspective and purpose into what would otherwise be nothing but a pointless chronology. This is something that is often missing in journalistic texts. And it is the contextualised stories that journalists who are also cleaners should write – as well as journalists who are just journalists.
Maids were the main news story in Slovenia for a while, but then we suddenly let them slip out of our minds. All the while, they are still wading in the same muck.
I’m too young to resort to cynicism, but I no longer believe in news journalism, which always seems to be diving head-first into the next hot, sexy and attractive thing, calling out an atrocity one day and completely forgetting about it the next. Similarly, maids were the main news story in Slovenia for a while, but then we suddenly let them slip out of our minds. All the while, they are still wading in the same muck. In 2019, the cleaners from two of Ljubljana’s elite hotels, Union and Mons, spoke up about their exploitation and difficult working conditions for the TV programme Tednik which airs on national television. The women would work non-stop for up to two or three weeks without any days off, working 12-hour shifts and cleaning up to 36 rooms a day. Their overtime was annulled and although they were promised permanent contracts, their employers just kept them on successive fixed-term contracts. When one of them fell ill due to burnout, her employers notified her that her services were no longer needed. The journalistic reporting on these issues ended soon after the initial news broke. The sob stories – without any context and reduced to bare facts – were soon forgotten. The stubborn resistance to narrativity in the name of reductive models of scientism (and journalistic objectivity), as Kearney asserts and as I concur, will soon yield to the awareness that historical truth is as much the property of ‘narrative knowledge’ as it is of so-called ‘objective knowledge’. That being said, it is not easy to find a balance between the two and I am still looking for it myself. In my desperation, I often turn to one extreme or the other – I either go too far by stating bare facts or I tell one personal story after another hoping that I can get through to the readers. When faced with this dilemma, journalists nowadays often choose to abandon their quest for objectivity, saying there is no such thing anyway. Despite this, I still believe that we should strive for objectivity. It is through objectivity – which, paradoxically, is always subjectively determined – that we allow the victims to break the monopoly on truth (which had been established without them) and assume the right to their own narrative. As Julian Barnes puts it in A History of the World in 10½ Chapters (1990): “We all know objective truth is not obtainable; […] but while we know this, we must still believe that objective truth is obtainable; or we must believe that it is 99 per cent obtainable; or if we can’t believe this we must believe that 43 per cent objective truth is better than 41 per cent. We must do so, because if we don’t we’re lost, we fall into beguiling relativity, we value one liar’s version as much as another liar’s, we throw up our hands at the puzzle of it all, we admit that the victor has the right not just to the spoils but also to the truth.”
I am a man, I can handle it, I can take it
Due to their status, cleaners often act as their own representation, their own unionists. Although conceived as a form of collective representation for wage-dependent workers, the trade union crystallized as the paramount organizational body for the steadily employed native workers, Andrea Komlosy notes in Work: A Global History Perspective. In practice, the interests of migrants, precarious and seasonable workers, who often cannot become members (and are therefore often seen as being part of the unorganised workforce), are subordinate to the interests of the unionised, steadily employed workers. Precarious workers and non-steadily employed workers, such as hotel maids, are therefore excluded from the community simply because they are prepared to work for lower pay, effectively undermining any bargaining power of an organised workers’ movement and creating unfair competition.
In the case of the immigrant hotel maids, we also cannot ignore the combination of concealing their gender, social position and ethnicity, which, in the labour market, translates into unequal access to various professions and work arrangements, as well as a hierarchical evaluation of work. In this sense, the native language is very important and also problematic – while working at the hotel, I met a woman who had only come to Slovenia at the beginning of the year and who had two school-age children. She did not speak Slovenian, but was keen to learn – while cleaning, we started naming the objects that surrounded us: broom, bucket, frame, glass, window, vacuum cleaner. We then moved on to prepositions and conjunctions. Every time I told her a word, she would quietly whisper it to herself and they say it aloud. She started working as a maid because she could not get a job at a store despite her education as a retailer (this seems reasonable enough for an employer looking for Slovenian-speaking workers). Still, there was a lingering thought that this person had been pushed into a corner – she could not attend a language course for several reasons (mainly, as she explained, a lack of time – in the afternoons, she was left with unpaid domestic work and taking care of the children), whereas it was also impossible for her to learn the language through her work environment, as she was surrounded almost exclusively by people who also did not speak it. If you were Bosnian, I could learn nothing from you.
When one is surrounded by people working under the same conditions for some time, the absence of permanent employment is no longer seen as something particularly tragic. Employment agreements specifying performance and payment for waged work extend far back into human history: clay tablets of ancient Middle Eastern cultures, for instance, recount how the builders who erected the palaces and temples of old were paid for their labour, writes Komlosy. The contract actually became the most widespread form of agreement in the buying and selling of labour because of an increase in the paid gainful activity outside the home. And what does it actually do? It transforms the social relation resulting from social inequality (capital owners versus those limited to their own labour) into a condition in which unequal partners enter a contractual bond in a state of formal equality, adds Komlosy. In theory, this effectively obscures the imbalance of power. One could argue that if an agreement is signed, but offers no security, the employer is deliberately bypassing the regulatory system (for instance by giving work assignments to part-time independent and contractual workers who are not protected under a collective agreement). This practice gained prevalence with the neoliberal turn of the 1980s, which paved the way for a social and labour-related disintegration. What we are seeing today are the deepening implications of this practice.
Self-identification with one’s work and through one’s work prevents the person from recognising that they are being exploited.
The fragmentation of labour relations and the related insecurity gradually led to the individualisation and isolation of workers which we are witnessing today. The impacts can be felt in all segments of work. The loneliness amid the exploitation seems even more acute (but also more obscured) in cases where the individual strongly identifies with their work. Self-identification with one’s work and through one’s work prevents the person from recognising that they are being exploited (this issue, especially in so-called cultural and creative industries where a person’s creative expression is also their profession, had already been thoroughly researched in the 1970s). Goran Lukić, head of Slovenia’s Counselling Office for Workers, once shared with me his observations regarding guest-workers and truck drivers in Slovenia. He noticed that there is a sort of macho connection between the person and the hard labour they are carrying out, in the sense of: I am a man, I can handle it, I can take it. Physical labour – although often seen as inferior – can also be a status symbol, giving the worker’s situation an air of acceptability.
The perception of labour has changed throughout our history. In the Greek Polis, manual labour was seen as a task done by farmers, day labourers and slaves, whereas the free citizens differed from them in that they did not work or conduct business, but educated themselves and took part in political life. The Roman Empire saw labour as suffering and torment which the people had to endure along with their exile from the Kingdom of Heaven (this interpretation was further advanced by the idea of God’s blessing, which transformed all labour into an act of serving God). Later in history, the idea of creative work was formed, based on the connection between the human being, their tool and nature. A person’s self-fulfilment was thought to be achieved by transforming a material using their knowledge and their tool, reaffirming their humanity. And here we are now. Work is a blessing, a pleasure and suffering, all at once. If self-identification reaches a point where work justifies the person’s existence and if the individual can only reach self-respect through work, a fall from grace (for instance by being laid off) can be very painful and even fatal. One could even call it toxic self-identification, which permeates one’s life and co-determines modern-day work culture.
Students as unfair competition
The transition from relations based on trust to contractual legal relations therefore only improved the situation of workers at first sight. A major criticism, argues Komlosy, is that equality achieved between contractual partners became confused with social equality in the popular mind. It concealed the forced nature of the relationship which results from the worker’s separation from the modes of production and which forces the worker to ‘voluntarily’ enter into an employment agreement. This superficial ‘voluntariness’ also minimises the possibility that the worker will acknowledge the exteriorisation of their work and to see the transformation of the use value to exchange value as a loss. In a competitive environment, there is a danger that this will result in a highly uncertain living situation for the worker who (in the absence of a trade union) is circumstantially driven to care for no one but themselves, renouncing any communal solidarity – as I did in my role as a maid. In this sense, we can also consider the situation of students, who are stuck in a sort of grey zone in terms of our work. Since we are not precarious workers per se, our situation definitely cannot be compared with that of cleaners (for one, our taxes are much lower). Student work – when a student is not professionally active in their own field – also creates unfair competition for low-skilled workers who basically have no possibility of carrying out high-skilled or specialised work. On the other hand, we are also a cheap workforce, and a student’s job referral does not guarantee the preservation of an employment relationship or even that a student will still have a job tomorrow or the day after.
The possibility of me, the student, being laid off by my employer is therefore much higher than the possibility of me walking away from them. And so begins the story of Klara, the cleaner.
Here today, gone tomorrow
These days, Lukić’s Counselling Office for Workers definitely has its hands full and the telephones are ringing off the hook. There simply aren’t enough organisations of this sort in Slovenia, although student worker representation is just as feeble as the representation of precarious and migrant workers. I am not affiliated with any student movement, as I believe that they are mostly based on platitudes, that they all tend to relativise depending on the current political leadership and that they, in their helplessness, often resort to tearful and emotional outbursts. Just like journalism. The idea of students being a single homogenous group is a lie, Marija Jeremić noted several weeks ago in her article for Disenz. Her words could not ring more true. Such an idea prevents the formation of a stable movement by any of the subgroups. “The homogeneity of a social group is unity based on interest. It would be difficult to claim that the interests of the daughters and sons of the higher class who don’t have to make a living via the student job service are the same as those of the student workers for whom the student job service acts as their primary source of livelihood,” she writes. She adds that the organisation of an extremely heterogeneous group of people (who might even have conflicting interests) can only lead to superficial activism under generalised slogans. This is exactly what we witnessed in Slovenia during the shutdown of the faculties – and the generalised and meagre pandemic support for students (to put it mildly) did not help matters. We all received 150 euro: those whose income had not changed, those who didn’t work at all and those whose income had dropped 100% over this period.
Through her action, Mirela proved that a seedling of community can grow even in truly unfavourable conditions. She stood up for me when I felt powerless and scared.
My disappointment over the loss of my student job lessened over the weeks, but has still not completely disappeared. The experience made me think about how extraordinarily replaceable we are already as students, although I fear that the real hunger games will start only later in our careers. Through her action, Mirela proved that a seedling of community can grow even in truly unfavourable conditions. She stood up for me (and for all who will come after me) when I felt powerless and scared. The cleaner assumed the role of the trade union, the labour inspectorate, the student job service and other bodies that are supposed to assist us in resolving these types of predicaments and have our backs. When Mirela asked our superior when I would be paid and how much, this was simply the most tangible and concrete form of representation. The unspoken message that she was not doing it out of self-interest – I could offer her nothing more in return than a wink and a reserved thank you – but because she felt that we were a team and that we had to stick together made me feel, after far too long, that I, too, was a part of a community.
Translation: Pika Golob
Foto: Marco Verch, Flickr
* The names of the co-workers have been changed to protect their privacy.
1An employment agency which mediates temporary and part-time work to high-school and university students.
2In the original text, all the parts spoken by Mirela and the other maids are in Serbo-Croatian.