Some time ago, I met the lady who regularly cleans our building in the corridor of my department. I noticed that her usual hearty expression had been supplanted by a look of frustration. The reason for her discontent soon became clear: the men’s room.
I’ll spare you the details, but I’m still mulling over the question how adult men with an academic degree can leave such a mess. It made the gorilla house at Blijdorp look like four-star hotel in comparison. No wonder our cleaning lady exclaimed “People forget it from time to time, but we’re human beings too!”
A few weeks later I struck up a conversation with her. She told me her name is Fatima, that she had moved to the Netherlands from Cape Verde and that she had already been doing this work for 20 years. People like Fatima work at least as hard as academics, but are rewarded with considerably less income and appreciation: as recently as 18 months ago, it took a large-scale strike before continued pay for cleaners who fall ill was included in the CLA for the sector.
Rather a contrast with the reimbursement that university staff members are entitled to for unused leave – to a maximum of ten days. Cleaners often do their job in the background or after hours, and don’t come in contact with other staff members at EUR that much. However, this does not mean that they aren’t vital to the smooth functioning of our and other universities.
In their book ‘Why garbage men deserve more than bankers’, Jesse Frederik and Rutger Bregman show that when the latter group decided to lay down work the financial markets carried on as usual, while a strike by the workers of the New York City Department of Sanitation led to chaos in a matter of days. Frederik and Bregman conclude that while garbage men earn less than bankers, they actually deserve more.
If doctoral candidates and professors were to go on strike, would they be as sorely missed as cleaners who do the same? I wouldn’t bet my money on it. And this doesn’t just apply to cleaners: most academics are aware of the importance of remaining on good terms with the secretariat. And the Department for Exam Registration is no different: if you have the courtesy to thank them for their efforts occasionally, they tend to be more understanding when you hand in your exam a week late.
A disproportionate share of the work in the academic sector is still done on the basis of fixed-term contracts. And this makes it all the more important to appreciate the long-term commitment of our support staff: to a large extent, they form the collective memory of our university as an institution.
That’s why for 2016, I would like to propose the following New Year’s resolution: to show more appreciation for our quiet forces. And not to make them more accommodating to our requests, but for the simple fact they’re human beings too.