John Bird: Forget noble, our low-paid just need decent wages

Gestures of recognition don’t pay for rent and travel, food and school uniforms

Some years back I read about a book by a leading social critic of government who took some time off to get a job as a chambermaid. Earlier I had read most of a book by an American woman who had done the same in the US. But I think it was a French woman who started this craze among serious social journalists to clean toilets, make beds and vacuum up; and out of all this produce a book.

A sense of solidarity came out of the pieces I read. But also the wretchedness of being so incidental to people’s understanding of life, yet so essential. Cleaning and making the world run tidily was one of the most important service industries as you passed through the day. An unclean world does your head in, at times. Yet cleaners were overlooked and underpaid.

This question resurfaced for me last week when sitting in the Lords as we debated social mobility. Would you encourage your child to become a cleaner in life, asked a baroness. The minister of course praised cleaners – what else can you do? – and said that it was a noble calling.

We know nurses keep the show on the road. We know bus drivers, train drivers and pilots move us to essential places. But cleaning a noble profession?


Last year, 27,000 people worldwide earned an income selling street papers, making a total of £23.4 million.

Perhaps I heard her wrong. Fifty years ago this year I took up the mop and the bucket, the cloth and the scourer in the interests of British democracy; becoming a kitchen washer-up and cleaner in the House of Commons. I was not writing a book but hiding from my wrongdoings. It was riveting being a background figure to the great voices of Harold Wilson’s government and Parliament in early 1970. Irascible MPs who twisted their tongues and their faces when you met them as you cleaned up the tables and the mess they left. You were an invasion, alien. Essential in the smooth running of things, yes, “but did you have to bring that wet cloth over here where we’re talking about social justice?” so to speak.

I would say that the cleaning brigade at Parliament are not, seemingly, treated as feudally as half a century ago. Who half a century ago would raise the nobility of cleaning in a Lords debate? We have moved on.

So many people who are now running the show will tell you their harrowing tales of shelling peas in large cold factories in Lincolnshire, for instance; or waiting tables in caffs in their struggle towards social and political prominence. It is a phase some have had to pass through. A part of the apprenticeship to life on the upper rungs. A kind of rite of passage, until you cash in on your education and social drive; and, at times, mum and dad’s address book.

Who half a century ago would raise the nobility of cleaning in a Lords debate? We have moved on

The three books I mentioned at the beginning though were serious attempts at explaining the day-in and day-outness of being right at the bottom of the social and business pile. Of the incredible struggle it is to get through life while living on a pittance. A noble struggle, if by noble you mean dedicated and fiercely focused. Obdurate, rather than blessed by saintliness.

Of course none of us would bring our children up to aspire to be a cleaner. Unless of course the money was grand and you could guarantee that our children would have a fuller life.

In some ways therefore it’s a mockery to pretend it’s noble; unless with that you got wages that were actually commensurate to your social usefulness. If that happened, a £100,000-a-year train or bus driver, or nurse, would be the order of the day.

We live in a topsy-turvy world. An arsey-versy world as they used to say in the print. A world which is often looking for equality at the top and there’s little economic fury at what’s happening down where bargaining power hardly exists.

Equality is a joke if all are not included; and not just the public examples of outrage amongst the big hitters and earners. Once the newscasters have got it sorted, will they then move on to the lowest paid but essential service providers in the BBC, for instance?

No, don’t settle for the nobility of cleaners, if it means giving them a shining daily smile of recognition but no means to live a fuller, less impecunious life. Gestures of recognition don’t pay for rent and travel, food and school uniforms.

And Polly Toynbee’s book about being a cleaner-upper should be read by us all. We might then want justice moved about a bit more; and down the pay scale a bit more.

John Bird is the founder and Editor in Chief  of The Big Issue