New Zealand Labour Day, 2010
Yesterday, Madame Grémont, the cleaning lady, brought Maman a bouquet of roses. … OK, I won’t go into the fact that Madame Grémont gives roses to Maman. They have the same relationship that all progressive middle-class women have with their cleaning ladies, although Maman thinks she really is the exception: a good old rose-coloured paternalistic relationship (we offer her coffee, pay her decently, never scold, pass on old clothes and broken furniture, and show an interest in her children, and in return she brings us roses and brown and beige crocheted bedspreads).
From The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery, translated by Alison Anderson, Paris: Gallic, 2006 (trans. 2008).
From time to time when we have both been working full time, or near full time, we have employed cleaners, and we have always paid them decently, ensured they have paid tea breaks, asked them to do a springclean instead of a regular clean if we are going to be away (even if we don’t need the house cleaned, the cleaner still needs her wages), tried to treat them respectfully as people who are providing a much needed service for us. Plus I have always insisted that they not clean the toilets: we can clean up our own sh*t.
Even so, this paragraph from this excellent novel hit home. All the same, I wonder what the alternative is? Should I treat people who come into my home to clean with less respect than say, tradies who come in to fix taps and drains and electrical connections and the like?
I don’t think so. I think the answer is to remember that cleaners and other workers are entitled to the full protection of the law. The quality of their employment is not dependent on an employer’s fancies, but on the conditions that have been fought for by unions, and enshrined in law. And decent employers should comply with those conditions, not because they fear the might of the law, but because they are the minimally decent way to behave with respect to other human beings.