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Is cleaning a route to a better life for migrants?

Updated Wednesday, 18th May 2016
New research in Finland suggests that the time demands, insecurity and relative isolation of cleaning work may make the dream of integration harder for new arrivals to achieve.

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Let me at once introduce you to the main character of this blog post: Kifibin. He is a Ugandan man in his mid-thirties currently working as a cleaner in Finland. His story includes many characteristics typical of migrant cleaners’ trajectories: he began cleaning work while studying on an international programme in a Finnish university, and he would now like to learn more Finnish and move on in his career, but he is struggling to get the opportunity to do so. His case is also typical because there are many African men in the Finnish cleaning industry who are over-educated for the job they are doing.

Kifibin moved to Finland in 2010 to study on an international Master’s programme in the natural sciences. He had completed his Bachelor’s degree and worked in the water industry in Uganda but then wanted to take his studies further. At that time, there were no tuition fees in Finland but the cost of living was high, so Kifibin tried to find a job and finally got part-time cleaning work.

Since he planned to stay in Finland, Kifibin took two beginner-level language courses (A1 and A2 in the European Framework of Reference) at the university. I was teaching the second of these courses and noticed that Kifibin was the most active student in the group, and he attended every lesson, that is, three times a week. He dreamt of becoming a university teacher and researcher. After finishing his programme, he tried to go on to doctoral studies but did not get funding. Nor did he get any other employment opportunities in his field, so he continued cleaning, working now for two cleaning companies, and meanwhile tried to learn more Finnish in order to get access to Finnish society and, particularly, to the broader labour market.

A cleaner mopping a floor A cleaner at work in an empty building

Cleaning is a so-called entry-level job, where students and newly arrived immigrants get their first chance to work. In Finland, as in many other Western countries, cleaning is the most common job for immigrants. The language barrier is often regarded as the main reason for migrants’ difficulties getting a job. It is doubtful, however, whether migrants working in low-paid low-skilled jobs really do have any opportunities to move on. My PhD tackles this question by exploring the opportunities cleaners have for learning the language of their new country.

Private cleaning companies offer their services to companies and public institutions (like schools and hospitals) and cleaners often work on various sites. Here, the focus is on the workplace where Kifibin worked in the mornings: a large event centre, where a big sporting event is organised every week. It has restaurants, cafés, stables, toilets and locker rooms. I followed Kifibin’s work there for nine days in the spring of 2013, making field notes, recording some of Kifibin’s encounters with other people, and having discussions and interviews with Kifibin and with people we came across during his daily routine.

I was surprised how alone Kifibin was at work. He was the only cleaner working in the event centre, which was open to the public only once a week. He therefore worked mostly in closed, empty spaces. Cleaners usually work outside opening and office hours, as it is easier to clean empty places. I always had my audio-recorder with me but some days I did not get to record anything: besides greetings, there really was no interaction. No coffee breaks with work mates, no short chats in the corridor, no phone calls.

Once a week, however, Kifibin’s supervisor came to tell him about any extra tasks he had to do or other changes in the cleaning routine, and sometimes a restaurant manager, who was the contact person between the event centre and the cleaning company, exchanged a word or two with Kifibin. However, she mostly spoke English to him. In an interview, she explained why she was not in regular contact with the cleaner:

Actually the cleaning is outsourced and the supervising is outsourced, too, so it should disturb our work as little as possible so to say. So the cleaner should be like very invisible. […] And of course I need to contact their managers too so that the billing patterns and other stuff will be correct.

The restaurant manager’s words reveal the complexity of privatization and sub-contracting: she had to contact the cleaning company rather than tell the cleaner directly of any changes. Kifibin was not part of the event centre’s work community. At the same time, he was isolated also from his own work community, and did not meet his co-cleaners regularly.

Kifibin had no longer time to take any language courses as he cleaned from 6 am to 2 pm in this workplace and, besides, worked all evening for another cleaning company. That is why he tried to learn Finnish during the workdays, despite his isolation. He had asked his supervisors to use Finnish instead of English with him, and he tried to learn from the instructions they gave. Partly because of our teacher–student relationship, Kifibin asked me a lot of questions about the Finnish language during my fieldwork days. He also tried to read notes and signs in the workplace and he listened to the radio while cleaning:

There are few people around, and I’m always alone so I get to listen to the radio almost every day. So that has also been good for me to learn different phrases or even as well listening, especially listening, and trying to understand different topics when people are talking about different situations.

Kifibin thought he had only limited possibilities to develop his language skills at work; he mostly learned to understand, not so much to produce Finnish. A year after this fieldwork, in 2014, Kifibin took aNational Certificate of Language Proficiency test. He passed the intermediate level, which is required for getting Finnish citizenship (equivalent to level B1 in the Common European Framework of Reference). However, he is still stuck in cleaning work.

The precarious state of affairs in the Finnish cleaning industry became evident during the period of fieldwork when the client company cancelled the cleaning contract, after getting a better offer from another cleaning company. That is why Kifibin’s workplace changed when he had been cleaning there for seven months. Because of the fierce price competition in the cleaning industry, cleaners’ working hours have been cut to a minimum. This makes cleaning work both physically demanding and insecure. Cleaners need to be efficient, flexible and able to change their routines whenever their company loses an old contract or wins a new one.

In Finland, those immigrants whose residence permit is dependent on a specific minimum number of working hours often need to stay in cleaning jobs no matter what. For migrants like Kifibin, cleaning might turn out to be a dead-end job rather than a stepping-stone to a better one.

This article was originally published by Language On The Move under a CC-BY licence


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