Let’s hear it for cleaners!

28th of June 2022
Let’s hear it for cleaners!
Let’s hear it for cleaners!

Cleaners are the life-blood of our industry. ECJ celebrates the amazing work they do and looks at the many ways in which cleaners go above and beyond what is expected of them.

WE ALL DEPEND ON the invisible workforce that toils tirelessly to ensure that our streets and facilities are clean and litter-free. Cleaners are expected to remove everything unpleasant from the public eye – whether it is drug paraphernalia, food packaging, broken bottles, animal faeces or vomit.

But instead of being hailed as heroes, this body of workers is often despised, disregarded – and sometimes even abused and assaulted. Reports of street cleaners being robbed, beaten up, bombarded with eggs and even shot at with air rifles have hit the news over recent years.

However, despite this sorry state of affairs it appears there are plenty of cleaners who receive the appreciation they deserve from their local communities.

Street cleaners in particular perform a particularly important function since our roads and pavements need to be kept clear of debris to prevent accidents, slips and trips. And organic waste in open spaces could represent a hazard to health.

Cleaners have to tackle this task head-on, and frequently in difficult circumstances. Street cleaning is often carried out by lone workers in the early hours of the morning or late at night when few people are around. And dangerous neighbourhoods need cleaning just as much as leafy avenues  - often even more.

Physically attacked

So cleaners repeatedly need to put themselves at risk during their working shift. In the last 12 months alone there have been numerous stories in the press about European street cleaners being physically or verbally attacked when going about their work.

However, the upside of working in full view of the public means cleaners are exposed to positive attitudes as well. And for every dangerous assailant on the streets, there are several other law-abiding citizens who are quietly appreciative of the work that cleaners do.

In October 2017 a street cleaner in Beckenham, South London became the subject of a positive Facebook post by a community member who wanted to point out his good work.

Other people living nearby quickly recognised the unnamed man from his description and between them posted more than 260 “likes” and 50 comments. These included: “Always stops to say good morning”, “Always has a smile on his face” and: “Lovely guy. Helped look for our two-year old’s missing bunny which was dropped on the high street”.

Influx of appreciation

This influx of appreciation for a cleaner was by no means an isolated incident. In September 2018, the Mayor of Greenwich near London made a point of personally thanking a hard-working street cleaner who had received glowing praise from his local Plumstead community. Craig Hutton, who had worked in the south-east London suburb for 15 years, responded to the accolade with the words: “The best bit about my job is the fact people are stopping to say ‘Well done!’, which means that they appreciate my work.”

And in June 2019 it emerged that Liverpool street cleaner Thomas McArdle, 61, was awarded the British Empire Medal for cheerfully keeping the city’s roads spotless.

One of the reasons why cleaners deserve this acclaim is because some of the tasks they have to carry out are fairly unsavoury. This became apparent early in 2019 when UK contract cleaning company Cordant revealed some of the items its staff had found on London buses during the course of their work.

The list included sex toys, soiled nappies, positive pregnancy tests, false teeth in a pool of vomit, a fresh animal heart and a pile of human faeces - with a flag in it.

It is incredible that people should deliberately leave behind such items for others to find and dispose of. However, some objects are presumably discarded accidentally.

One Cordant Cleaning staff member reported finding a brown envelope containing more than £300,000 in used bank notes when cleaning a bus. Instead of pocketing the cash, the honest operative handed it straight over to the Metropolitan Police.

Other examples of cleaners’ honesty and helpfulness are constantly being documented. In May 2018, a cleaner working at South Korea’s Incheon International Airport discovered seven gold bars wrapped in newspaper in a rubbish bin.

A finder’s fee is usually awarded to people who find valuable goods in South Korea under the country’s law. However, this does not apply to employees working on company property so the unnamed cleaner received nothing from his €289,000 haul.

In spring 2019, another airport cleaner went above and beyond the call of duty to help a passenger find an item of jewellery that had great sentimental value.

The passenger at New Zealand’s Invercargill Airport discovered she had lost the €62,500 family heirloom just before her flight departed. After hearing about the incident, cleaner Le-Ann Peterson began a three-day treasure hunt in search of the 3.25-carat diamond ring alongside her other cleaning duties. She eventually found the ring on the floor by the wheelchairs, glittering in the sun. It was returned to its rightful owner who was extremely grateful for Peterson’s diligence and honesty.

Receiving positive feedback about cleaners from members of the public is by no means unusual, says operational HR director at OCS Justine Vaughan. In fact she says her own company receives such feedback on a weekly basis.

“The manager of one of our operatives - Steve Bundy - received many emails commending him for doing a great job,” she said. “As a result he was nominated for one of our ‘OCS Star awards’.

Beyond cleaning

“We also received feedback from a couple visiting from New Zealand whose hotel room happened to overlook one of our customers’ buildings. This couple were so impressed with the attitude and dedication of one of our cleaning operatives that they made sure to give feedback before they returned home.”

According to Vaughan it is not uncommon for the company’s airport cleaners to help passengers with directions and provide assistance to elderly and disabled passengers. “Our operatives provide
much more than cleaning - and they enjoy being able to do so,” she said. “And we have a programme called Bright Ideas that provides a way for cleaning operatives to share feedback and suggestions with their managers.”

She says various incidences of cleaners going above and beyond the call of duty have attracted media attention over the years. “However, it’s the numerous daily actions that make a difference,” she said. “These can be anything from going through the rubbish to find someone’s lost dentures to sitting with an elderly person and helping them eat their lunch.”

OCS passes all the positive feedback it receives on to its cleaners. “Where possible we also share it on our Facebook page and feature it in our internal newsletter,” says Vaughan.

Today’s society is becoming more equal and inclusive all the time. And as a result, that invisible divide between the people who do the dirty work and the rest of us is beginning to break down.
Members of the public are increasingly demonstrating a willingness to take up tools and voluntarily join in with the collective cleaning effort. For example, Japanese sports fans have gained a reputation for bringing rubbish bags along with them to stadiums and clearing up after themselves – and others –after the event has finished.

After the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan, members of Canada’s national rugby team hit the headlines when they took part in the Typhoon Hagibis clean-up, sweeping storm-hit streets and shovelling away some of the debris left behind by the devastating cyclone.

Public responsibility

And public responsibility for clearing away litter and other rubbish is beginning to catch on in other countries as well.

Tourists in Berlin, for example, have been invited to help clean up the city in exchange for a free guided tour. The Berlin municipal authorities teamed up with a tour company to instigate the scheme which led to the city’s parks being cleared of cigarette butts, corks, picnic detritus and broken glass by teams of tourists who were rewarded with an hour-long city tour for their efforts.

And a UK tour operator invited its customers to take part in a beach clean activity. This involved tourists picking up litter from Europe’s beaches in a bid to give something back to their holiday destination.

And growing concerns about the amount of plastic waste in the environment has prompted a worldwide trend in removing other people’s litter. Plogging – the act of jogging while picking up rubbish - began as an organised activity in Sweden in 2016 and is now gaining global popularity as a form of ethical workout.

The more we share in the cleaning up of our communal spaces and facilities, the more we help to shoulder the cleaner’s load while gaining a greater appreciation of their efforts.

Cleaners are amazing. The work they do is potentially life-saving – and sometimes even life-threatening. So it is about time they received some support from the rest of us, along with some real appreciation for what they do to keep us safe.


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