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The Night Cleaner

posted on 10 Mar 2017

The Night Cleaner by Florence Aubenas

The collapse of the banking system in 2008 was an event that has exposed global capitalism for what it really is – a system that exists to systematically exploit the poor and vulnerable for the continuing enrichment of a small but disturbingly powerful elite. Everyday ordinary people are living with the consequences of what happened and as Naomi Klein pointed out in her book The Shock Doctrine, the rich and powerful are never slow to capitalise on a crisis. Household incomes have been eroded, wages for the majority have largely stagnated, job insecurity has become a feature of everyday life with bogus self-employment, part-time and zero-hours work taking the place of established jobs. Having been priced-out of the housing market many young and low paid workers now have to live with being exploited by landlords asking absurd rents for sub-standard accommodation while they work a portfolio of demeaning jobs or rely on the so-called ‘gig’ economy.

Women in particular are at the sharp end of this exploitation. Florence Aubenas’ superb piece of investigative journalism, The Night Cleaner lays bare the circumstances so many workers face in a nitty gritty and detailed investigation of life working on the margins. Aubenas simply packs a suitcase and heads for Caen in  Basse-Normandie looking for a job as a cleaner. What follows is a story of hardships and disappointments, scraping a day-to-day living, picking up a few hours work here and there and always in search of the magical security of a permanent – if not well paid – job.

The book is a polemic and it’s very well written and structured but it’s not really a surprising book or one that breaks new territory – especially if you’ve been working around these issues for as long as I have. I first started work at the Low Pay Unit in 1985 – a campaigning organisation that was lobbying for a UK National Minimum Wage. We were doing this work in the teeth of the Thatcherite gale that was blowing at the time and we came across the kind of stories Aubenas tells on a depressingly regular basis. The fact that we’re back where we started and living the circumstances of 1985 in 2017 is a real indictment – not just of the political system but of all of us who have allowed this to happen again.

I think that for me the single most disturbing thing that comes out of this ethnographic investigation is the way in which these marginalised night workers simply become socially invisible – none-people who aren’t even worthy of acknowledgement. I was particularly struck by one particular incident she records while cleaning an office: two employees stay late after work, waiting for everyone to leave so that they can have sex. They consummate their relationship in front of Aubenas without even acknowledging that she’s there – she has, she realises, become completely invisible and not worthy of note.

I should also warn you not to go to this book looking for solutions because she doesn’t offer any. Unlike some other books in this genre, you wont find a recipe for a better or fairer society – in fact I think it’s quite the opposite. What seems to really stand out at the end of her book is that there is no end to this. We’re trapped in a system that allows no exit, a hegemony so tightly drawn that it will take something quite extraordinary to break it down.

The book was published in the UK in 2011 by Polity and copies can be obtained at absudly low prices from second hand sources.

Terry Potter

March 2017