Dishing the Dirt: The Hidden Lives of House Cleaners (Canbury Press) by Nick Duerden

For some middle-class lefties like myself, one of the more embarrassing things to admit about lockdown was how much we missed our house cleaners. We were forced to cope with cleaning up our mess at exactly the same time as we were making more of it than ever. To be embarrassed about having a cleaner is to recognise how much those who can afford one can come to depend on them, while also acknowledging that this unregulated profession is often a haven for exploitation and, even under the best conditions, a gruelling way to earn a living. More than that, as Nick Duerden argues in Dishing the Dirt, cleaners are “cultural anthropologists”; they “hold the key to our real identities, to the people we really are, behind closed doors.”

The private lives that cleaners have access to are often far from pretty. The interviewees in Duerden’s book have some awful stories to tell: of being trafficked, of sudden dismissals and quibbling over money, of expectations that engrained filth can be turned into sparkling perfection in a couple of hours, of sheer exhaustion. Then there are the more subtle wounds caused by being treated as invisible: one cleaner Duerden interviews recalls the shamelessness with which her employer conducted an affair in front of her while his wife was away.

Dishing the Dirt is a straightforward book, and all the better for it. The author helps a range of cleaners tell their stories, unencumbered by much wider analysis. This fine-grained detail helps to explode any simple picture of exploitation into a more nuanced portrayal of the journeys that lead people to (and sometimes from) cleaning for a living. These journeys are often literal ones: Rosi, from Spain, came to London hoping to find opportunities as an interior designer that she lacked back home, but it didn’t quite work out that way; Amirah from Indonesia is in immigration limbo after fleeing from being trafficked into enslavement.

For most of the cleaners Duerden talks to, there are always dreams and hopes for something better – sometimes within the same field. Yuliya from Bulgaria started off cleaning and now employs others in her own cleaning company; Maxine from Luton has a specialist crime-scene cleaning operation. There are branches of the profession that are well paid, in domestic service for “high net-worth individuals”. And for a few, cleaning is satisfying on its own terms. Mario, who lives in a spotless flat himself, says his OCD tendencies make him the perfect cleaner; naked cleaner (yes, they exist) Brandy not only earns higher wages by disrobing, it gives her confidence and pride.

I don’t think that the fact that the picture Duerden paints isn’t one of unalloyed gloom erases the often brutal conditions, the exhaustion, the frequent exploitation and low pay. But this book reminds us that humans strive to find dignity and meaning even within lives that might seem hopeless.

If that search for dignity and meaning is to be supported, then we need to start treating cleaning as what it is – a profession, to be regulated, recognised and respected. The casual and insecure nature of cleaning means that developing the solidarity required to improve its standing is extremely difficult. One of Duerden’s interviewees, Marissa from the Philippines, is a founder of a nascent union that empowers cleaners, and that is certainly something to support. But really, part of the work lies on the shoulders of embarrassed middle-class people like me – if we choose to employ a cleaner, we need to treat them as we would the other professionals who make our lives easier.

This article is from the New Humanist spring 2021 edition. Subscribe today.