Confessions of a cleaner: what it’s really like for the women who tidy up after us

Netflix’s word-of-mouth hit Maid has shone a light on what cleaners have to deal with as part of their work. With women making up the majority of domestic cleaners, writer Isabelle Aron investigates how we really treat the people who tidy up after us. 

The worst cleaning job Holly* ever had was when she was just starting out. The now 35-year-old from Derbyshire turned up at a large townhouse. Once inside, she was shocked. The owner hadn’t left the house for three years – and he was a hoarder

“He had 89 toilet roll paper holders in the bathroom that he wanted me to throw away. And I had to get rid of his wife’s clothes as she had passed away,” she says. “The bathroom hadn’t ever been cleaned; it was like a festival toilet. It was disgusting.” She hadn’t brought her own cleaning products, which she quickly realised was a big mistake. “All he gave me was a bottle of Viakal [limescale remover] to clean the whole house.” 

She did her best. And afterwards? The man wasn’t exactly grateful. “He said I’d missed a bit on the windows. I thought: well you haven’t been out of the house in three years and you’ve not cleaned it, so give me a break.”  

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Holly is one of thousands of women working as a cleaner in the UK. According to the British Cleaning Council’s (BCC) 2021 report, there are more than 511,000 people working as ‘cleaning and hygiene operatives and domestics’, which includes cleaning houses, shops, hotels, schools, offices and other buildings. On average, the hourly wages of people in the profession range between £7.16 and £12.38, according to ONS figures cited by BCC. 

Women make up 79% of the workforce. And yet, we rarely hear their stories. What’s it like to clean up after other people? How are they treated? And why is the industry so dominated by women?

A new Netflix show, Maid, inspired by Stephanie Land’s New York Times bestselling memoir, Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, And A Mother’s Will To Survive, is shining a light on one woman’s experience. It tells the story of Alex Russell, a single mother who escapes an abusive relationship and starts cleaning houses to support herself and her daughter. 

Based on a true story, the show struck a chord with Rebecca*, 48, from Warwickshire, who found it “eerily similar” to her own experiences. Like Alex in Maid, Rebecca fell into cleaning as a way to earn money after she fled an abusive relationship. 

Things started to go wrong after her second child was born – she was made redundant from her steady job and her partner became increasingly abusive. That was five years ago, and she’s been cleaning houses ever since. 

“It churned it all up a bit for me,” she says about watching the show, but ultimately, she found it “validating” to see a story similar to her own played out on TV.

Seeing herself reflected in pop culture was a rare experience for Rebecca. Those in the industry can feel invisible or looked down on. “People have an image in their mind of someone with a fag in their mouth and a mop and bucket,” says Rebecca. “There’s the idea that you’re scrubbing toilets, so you don’t need to be very accomplished to do it.” 

Maid on Netflix: production still
Maid follows the story of Alex, a single mother who turns to housecleaning in a bid to make ends meet.

It plays on her mind when people ask what she does for a living. “I feel embarrassed saying to people that I’m a cleaner because it’s sort of a low-status thing,” she explains.

Holly agrees that there are negative stereotypes around cleaning: “There’s a stigma with being a cleaner because you’re cleaning someone else’s muck up. But it’s not a role you should be ashamed of. If I clean your home then the least you can do is be nice and say hello.”

A lack of respect can play out in other ways, too. Holly once took on a new job for a couple in their 70s. As soon as she turned up, the husband propositioned her. “He went: ‘How much would it cost for you to do me?’,” says Holly. When she called him out on it, he said it was just “banter”. She never went back.  

Despite some negative experiences, both Holly and Rebecca say there’s generally a higher level of respect when you’re cleaning someone’s home. “You’re in their space and you’re making it look good. If you worked in an office, I can’t imagine it being as respectful because the people in an office aren’t your employers,” says Rebecca. 

It’s something Aimee*, 23, from Sheffield, has experienced firsthand. She’s been a cleaner for four years and is currently a Covid touchpoint cleaner in an office, working 12-hour days. “You get people that ignore you if you say ‘morning’ to them, which can be a bit degrading,” she says. “They look down at you because you’re just a little cleaner. It puts me off my day sometimes. You try to be nice and they blank you.”

This lack of respect is particularly jarring given the essential role cleaners have played throughout the pandemic. When there’s a Covid case in the office where Aimee works, it’s her job to disinfect the area. “It’s stressful,” she says. “You clean it non-stop and people are still like: ‘Can you clean it more?’ There’s only so much you can do.” It makes her anxious, as she nearly lost her mum to Covid this year. “I don’t want to be carrying it home to my mum, but I have to do it.” 

Cleaners have played an essential role in offices during the pandemic.

Has the pandemic changed how people treat cleaners? Has the surge of appreciation people experienced when banging pots and pans for our carers remained? Aimee doesn’t think so: “I haven’t had anything to make me feel proud. All I’ve got is complaint after complaint after complaint. I don’t feel appreciated at all. It makes me think: what’s the point in me doing this?”

Rebecca thinks that initially, the pandemic did create more respect for cleaners. “It did at the start, when there was the clap for carers and people were like: ‘Aren’t the dustbin men great? Risking their lives coming out and collecting our bins.’ But it’s faded away now.” 

There’s no doubt that the job involves some grim tasks. “You see the real side to people when you clean their homes,” says Holly. She used to clean for a couple every week and there was one task she dreaded in the bathroom, that had nothing to do with cleaning the toilet. 

“They had a sex bin in their bathroom that I had to empty. It was full every week!” she says. “I tried not to look but it was full of condoms, baby wipes and tissues. Once, the bin emptied out in the hallway. It was mortifying. I had to scoop it all up. That was a hard job.” 

Rebecca says she’s learned not to judge anyone on the state of their homes, but it can be hard going. “I had one job where there was years of grease in the kitchen. I think they had a lot of fried food, so there were layers and layers of grease going rancid. It was revolting.” 

The flexabilty of cleaning allows many women to balance their work around child-care.

At the office where Aimee works, people often don’t flush the toilet or they leave their tampons on the floor. But the worst thing she’s had to deal with? “Cleaning someone’s bogeys off the wall,” she says. “They’re grown adults and they’re doing that – it’s gross. And then they’ve got the cheek to look down at cleaners.”

Stats from the BCC show that in the cleaning industry as a whole, the gender split is fairly even: 53% are male and 47% female. But these figures, which cover everything from waste management to landscape services and roles at all levels, don’t tell the whole story. Jobs that fall under the category of ‘cleaning activities’ – ie scrubbing toilets and washing floors – are predominantly done by women (69% women, 31% men). But why? 

For both Rebecca and Holly, one of the main reasons cleaning works for them is the flexibility that allows them to manage childcare around their work. It’s often a job that’s done on a part-time basis, too – according to the BCC, 76% of cleaning and hygiene operatives and domestics work part-time.

Rebecca says it’s “family-friendly work”, which means she can adapt her working hours around her childcare responsibilities, which is essential as a single mother. Holly needed something that could fit in with caring for her son, who is often in and out of hospital.

Despite appreciating the flexibility, Holly thinks that part of the reason the industry is dominated by women is down to gender stereotypes. “We’re taught that if you’re a woman you have to be in the kitchen and doing the cleaning; if you’re a man, you go out to work. I hate that attitude,” she says. 

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It’s clear that cleaning up after people can be a pretty thankless job. But it’s not all bad. Holly recognises how her role makes people’s lives better. “It gives me a lot of pride to go into someone’s home and make it nice for them,” she says. “I feel like I help people and that gives me a sense of satisfaction.” 

For Rebecca, who has lots of elderly clients, she’s often much more than a cleaner to them. “With the pandemic, quite a few of the [clients] in their 80s haven’t seen their family. They get me to sit down and have a cup of tea with them. If there were no cleaners, what would they do?”

*Names have been changed 

If you need help with bullying or harassment in the workplace, visit Citizens Advice

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