One of the most thankless jobs in today’s society is that of those who clean up after people: janitors, housekeepers, hotel cleaners, and those who work for maid services such as Merry Maids. These jobs are thankless, but necessary. Imagine if everyone in the U.S. who did any type of cleaning all went on strike on the same day. It would be terrible. Despite the fact that they provide an incredibly important service, those who clean are grossly underappreciated. Most of the time, they go unacknowledged by those who enjoy their services, and when they are acknowledged, it is often because someone feels they have done something wrong.
After I graduated college, I worked for the housekeeping department of my college campus for the summer to save up money to take a trip. I noticed three distinctive ways that people reacted to me: some seemed as though they did not even notice or care that I was there, some went out of their way to avoid eye contact (or any kind of contact) with me (as though I had something contagious), and others simply looked at me strangely. Even those who seemed friendly often treated me in a condescending manner. No one ever thanked me.
While my college housekeeping job was relatively easy, as there are far less students in the summer, most college housekeepers are not so lucky. During the school year, the amount of grossness can be out of control, especially in freshman dorms and ESPECIALLY in bathrooms. I have seen and heard about all manner of vileness on college campuses. Such messes are frequent. But the students, even the “socially active, justice and peace-seeking, politically correct” students at the college I attended, rarely give much thought to who cleans up the mess. (Unless, of course, the mess is not cleaned up. Then they are livid.) True, maybe they are friendly and nice to the cleaning staff when they see them, but it’s nicer to not leave used private objects in the sink or stuck to the wall. While these things are not done out of malice, they do involve a large amount of self-absorption and a flagrant lack of consideration.
In Nickle and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, an eye-opening book about the working poor, Barbara Ehrenreich goes undercover, taking a series of unskilled jobs to see if it is really possible to live off of minimum wage (the answer is no, not at a standard of living that would be considered acceptable). One of the jobs she took involved her working for a maid service. The results she reported were disgusting.
Those who use maid services arrange all the details with a person in charge of the company, and therefore may not even interact with the women who clean their house. Often, though, the owner of the house would arrange to be at home when the service came, so he or she (usually she) could make sure they were doing everything just right, to her particular specifications, and not stealing anything. Barbara never did encounter a warm and friendly owner. Rather, she cleaned houses for women who barely treated those cleaning as if they were human, and whose interactions with those doing the cleaning consisted mainly of ordering them around and picking at their work. No pleases or thank yous were ever involved. Meanwhile, the women doing the cleaning would come to work sick or injured for need of money, and work hard without complaining. The lack of ability of these rich homeowners to see these women as people was astounding.
Similar situations occur for janitors, those who clean office buildings and other types of buildings. Though they are as integral to the running of the buisness as anyone else who works there, they are often not acknowledged, even in thought, by the other employees. Most people do not even think about the fact that their carpet is vacuumed and their windows are clear and shiny, they just take it for granted that things will be clean. Janitors are usually only noticed in absence: if things are dirty, people know who to blame. But turn it around, and if things are clean, then no one gives it or them a second thought.
If wages in this country were commensurate with how unpleasant each particular job is to perform, then those who clean would be compensated fairly and paid a decent salary. However, this is not the case, and despite the fact that those who clean often have to deal with revolting things in a depressing environment, and perform tasks that many people would shudder at the thought of, they are still paid only minimally for their efforts, and treated as though they are worth less than those who work in the offices they clean, sleep in the hotel rooms that they tidy, or live in the houses or college dorms that they keep sparkling. While it may take years before this changes, make it better now by appreciating those who clean and being considerate of them. Clean up your own disgusting bathroom messes. Include the janitors in office parties and secret Santas. Leave a thank-you note for your maid at the hotel. Most of all, thank the people who perform these usually thankless tasks.