• 1980: Cleaners Won’t Be Treated Like Dirt


    Cleaners Won’t Be Treated Like Dirt

    Published in Socialist Worker 10 May 1980, as one of the regular columns I wrote in 1979-80 under the title: “It’s  The Same the Whole World Over”.


    Why did cleaners on the Paris underground railway stop work for nearly six weeks, leaving the stations deep in filth and forcing Paris Transport to bring in scabs under police protection to clean the platforms?

    Low wages and rotten working conditions? Yes, but behind this is the whole story of public spending cuts and how immigrant workers have to pay the price of them.

    The cleaners are not employed by Paris Transport; it subcontracts the work to twelve private companies, who are left with the job of finding cheap labour to do the filthy work.

    The cleaners were on £245 a month, far less than other underground workers.

    They were asking for £292. French law lays down a minimum wage of £1.39 an hour – the cleaning companies offered just one penny an hour above that including bonus!

    For that sum the cleaners have to pick up rubbish with no better equipment than brooms and shovels; clean the lines with the live rails still switched on and spray the stations with water containing acid, though the bosses are reluctant to give protective glasses.


    Because the cleaners aren’t Paris Transport employees they don’t have the privileges of transport workers. No free transport, so travel to work has to come out of their miserable wages.

    They were allowed into the railway workers’ canteens to clean them …. but not to eat there. And despite their filthy work they had no access to the Paris transport showers.

    There isn’t even any job security. Paris Transport, like every other public company, is under pressure to balance its budgets, so there is a proposal to cut back on cleaning. A bit more dirt for the passengers, and less jobs for the cleaners. For most of the workers this would not only mean the sack, but expulsion from France as unwanted immigrants.

    Nearly all the cleaners are immigrants – from France’s former colonies of Algeria, Tunisia, Mali and Senegal.

    Senegal is currently triumphantly celebrating twenty years of ‘independence’. But how much independence is there for a Senegalese worker who has to come to Paris to sweep tube platforms and pay over £30 a month for one tiny room in a hostel?


    The strikers built support by flying pickets and the strike was solid, with regular mass meetings.

    The union organised propaganda to explain the strikers’ case to passengers, and most tube users seem to have been sympathetic.

    Finally the strikers went back to work. They will get the wage increase – phased over two years, plus cost-of-living rises.

    Also they’ve won the right to use the showers and canteens, and a promise of no job losses till 1983.

    Only half a victory, perhaps; but at least the cleaners have shown by their magnificent struggle that just because they do a dirty job