Book Review – The Night Cleaner

Florence Aubenas’s The Night Cleaner reads like Nickel And Dimed 2.0. The idea is simple: the Libération journalist went undercover and got herself on the labor market during the recession, wanting to experience what the cohorts of precarized workers experience, first hand. She would stay undercover until she found a full-time job.

Her cover story was that, at 48, she had just been dumped by the man who “kept” her and she was now looking for a job, with no experience or qualifications. The book is the tale of her journey in the world of the precarized. What she uncovers, and what is often invisible (by design) is what neoliberalism is really like for the people who have to live it.

I should note first that the book (the English version, that is) would have benefited from a better translation. The English text feels clunky and I could still “read” the French underneath the translation. I don’t know why there was no better editing in that department. Maybe, because the book was such a best-seller in France, Polity was in a rush to get it translated. Whatever the reason, they should have done a better job of it.

But no one should let that discourage them because the book is great. Welcome to the Precariat, meet its members: the men and women of all ages who have to jump through the hoops that the Sarkozy administration throws in their way, for fear of losing unemployment benefits, the nonsensical (and often ridiculous) bureaucratic nightmares that are the French Pôles Emploi (unemployment centers where the unemployed are required to go, attend workshops on how to draft a resume, present oneself to potential employers, etc. in order to receive benefits, counseling and access to job listings), and waste hours and hours in transportation for a few hours of cleaning work.

Because, cleaning is the big booming sector that seems to thrive even during the recession. The workers are paid by the hours: the cleaning company negotiates a contract with a business, say, three hours of cleaning to take care of offices. In reality, to do a proper cleaning job, which the workers are expected to do, it takes over four hours. The workers are not paid for the extra time. Rather, they get yelled at either if they stick to three hours and don’t do a thorough job, or if they are too slow have to spend unpaid time on the job to do it properly. Oh, and these companies often put worker they just hired on probation, meaning, the workers are not paid during the probation period even though they work just the same.

So, step by step, we follow “Madame Aubenas” as she throws herself into her job search, and it’s not easy as it seems:

“I suddenly see how naive I’m being. With more resolve than experience, I’ve come to Caen to look for a job, convinced that I’ll find one, since I’m ready to do anything. I was fully prepared for working conditions to be tough, but the idea that that I wouldn’t be offered anything at all was the only possibility I’d not envisaged.” (11)

So, her advisor at the Pôle Emploi tells her that her only option is cleaning. And for that, she needs training, mandatory workshops. These interactions between the unemployed and the advisors at the Pôle Emploi would be funny if we weren’t talking about people’s lives and survival. So, there is no amount of humiliations and degradations that the unemployed will endure, because, well, they have no choice. And on both sides of the interaction, it’s iron cage all around:

“An advisor watches me come over. In the course of an afternoon, she sees a dozen newly registered clients queueing up, all of whom need to be assessed before they can be given guidance. There didn’t used to be any limits to the length of these interviews. Order from above started to restrict them to half an hour, and then twenty minutes. Between colleagues, the phrase used is ‘a rush job': everyone is reluctant to do it like that, but the directives are clear: ‘You’re not social workers any more – those days are over. We need figures. Start calling the job-seeker a ‘client”. It’s official: this is the word from on high.

For a long time, the staff responsible for job-seekers did mainly comprise social workers. But these days, recruitment essentially targets salespeople. ‘Get it into your head that it’s a new profession. The familiar old system is dead and gone,’ the managers keep saying.” (18-9)

Aubenas notes at some point that, actually, even the staff at the Pôles Emploi are starting to crack. Violent outbursts and suicides are not unheard of. These places are quite volatile as the “clients” also, inevitably, lose it after months of bureaucratic and degrading rules:

“At reception, a guy who’s dripping with sweat is protesting. ‘I know I haven’t made an appointment, but I’d just like to ask you to erase my telephone number from my file. I’m worried that an employer will give up if he tries to phone and there’s no answer.’

‘Why?’ asks the receptionist – today, it’s a slim young blonde.

‘It’s stopped working.’

‘What stopped working?’

‘My phone.’

‘Why’s it stopped working?’

‘They’ve cut me off for financial reasons.’

‘But you can’t turn up here just like that. You need to make an appointment.’

‘Okay, let’s keep calm. I’ll start again: I’d like to make an appointment, please, Miss.’

The young blonde woman appears sincerely annoyed. ‘I’m so sorry, Sir. We no longer make appointments face to face. It’s not our fault, it’s the new regulations, we have to apply them. Try to see it from our point of view. Appointments have to be made by phone these days.’

‘But my phone doesn’t work.’

‘There are telephones for you to use at the far end of the agency, but I must warn you: you need to phone just one number, 39-49, which gets you through to a central office they’ve just set up. It’s always being bombarded by customers. You can be waiting for ages.’

‘Ages?’

‘Sometimes, for several hours.'” (59-60)

So, Aubenas finally lands cleaning jobs, one at a training camp, one on the ferry between England and France (the worst possible job, according to, well, everyone), cleaning cabins and toilets. Unsurprisingly, cleaning jobs are women’s jobs. One only finds men in managerial positions, constantly mansplaining the women on how to do their job in the allotted time. And cleaning toilets is especially a women’s job.

“Melissa says, ‘the harder he makes us work, the shittier we feel. The shittier we feel, the more we lot ourselves get ground down.” (158)

One thing that shows very clearly through Aubenas’s narrative: for the precarized, solidarity is mandatory because otherwise, there is no way to make it. Employers now require their hires to have cars. No car, no job. Fortunately, Aubenas gets one from an elderly couple through an acquaintance and she shares it with her colleagues. Of course, it’s a clunker and there is no telling when it’s going to need expensive repairs or completely give out.

The lives of the precarized is a life of permanent uncertainty: will a mild toothache turn more severe? will the employer call tomorrow for a job? If an employer calls and asks you to come on the spot, what do you with the kids? A babysitter will cost all the money made on the job, but if one refuses a job, the employer might never call again:

“These days, nobody finds work, they just find ‘hours’ here and there.” (117)

So, it is a surreal situation where people work all the time without having jobs, earning money without earning a living.

So, the precarized always rely on informal solidarity networks to make up for a social structure that fails them, because there will be a two-hour drive for one hour of work at 10pm. Indeed, cleaning work always takes place early in the morning or late at night, because cleaning workers have to be invisible. When they do collide with office dwellers (because they could not finish the job on time), they are met with recriminations and contempt, which they quickly learn to ignore. This invisibility is humiliatingly illustrated when Aubenas has to clean an office while a couple of workers are having sex on a desk, completely ignoring her.

As Aubenas puts it, living like this is playing a game that one has already lost. The precarized are at the mercy of everything and everybody: employers, the government, the Pôle Emploi staff, and pretty much any kind of circumstances that will shatter the very fragile and non-existent equilibrium of their lives. And they get blackmailed all the time by their employers, the people to whom their work has been contracted, the Pôle Emploi staff. Any trace of rebellion or resistance to humiliation is swiftly punished. So, their lives are a combination of permanent tiredness and nagging anxiety.

And, of course, it does not matter that employers break labor laws by not paying employees properly, especially for overtime. Everybody knows they do it. The staff at the Pôle Emploi know it but doing something about it might cause employers to pull their listings. So, the mechanisms of accountability and control only apply to the unemployed.

And so, the precarized continue to play the game of going to the Pôle Emploi, going to workshops (another time sink and logistical nightmare for them), to advising sessions, each more useless than the next, juggling twenty balls at the same time, and getting used to it.

How is this not indentured servitude?

Any idiot who opens their yap about the poor being irresponsible, lazy and shiftless should be forced to read this book, and then forced to do as Aubenas did and see if they could make it.