SOAS (The School of Oriental and African Studies) has a contract with ISS, a transnational facility company to provide cleaning services. The cleaners struggle as part of the precariat: a global class living and working precariously with low wages and increased job insecurity. The Justice for Cleaners campaign calls for workers to be treated with dignity and respect.


To look at the situation of the SOAS cleaners is to consider the globalised interplays of labour and capital in a post-bailout world. Originally South American, they moved to Spain and then, once the recession struck, to the UK; all to seek work.


Marx is well-known for his theories around the fetishism of commodity[1]: “the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour. This is the reason why the products of labour become commodities.”(p. 47)


To Marx, capitalist societies view commodities not just as objects produced by people that are bought and sold, but as containing an intrinsic value. He believed commodities were wrongly seen as inherently having real value - in reality they have an abstract, economic value. This leads to the concept of reification - the idea that social relationships are expressed by the interactions between objects. This can also be described as ‘thingification’, the opposite of personification: objects are pseudo-persons, endowed with a life of their own.


As Barbra Johnson [2] in her book Persons and Things  puts it: “one transfers the social character of labour into a sociability among objects, sucking the humanness out of the makers and injecting it into the products” (p.21).  As such, people become alienated; value is no longer attributed to them or their labour but becomes embodied in the things they produce. Therefore, not only is there no recognition of the labour involved in production, the objects produced appropriate human inter-relations.


For cleaners, the relationship with production is complicated. As with most service workers, there isn’t necessarily a physical, material output. No actual object is manufactured to be debated as to whether it embodies its own inherent value or that of its producer. This is why Marx often used the term ‘commodity’, which does not have to refer to a physical object, but rather any product or activity offered for sale.


It follows that for those working in the service sector such as cleaners their actual labour is their commodity. Therefore, the act of cleaning an office is seen as being of its own value rather than embodying the work that they put in: the human relation is not between the office worker and the cleaner but becomes between the office worker and the cleanliness. The human that produced it is forgotten.


This relationship is further complicated because the cleaner’s main role is not so much producing cleanliness but removing dirt and mess. Therefore, their labour (or at least the product of their labour) is only noticed when it is not there, when the bin hasn’t been emptied or the carpet not hoovered.


From here it can be argued that people working as cleaners are doubly alienated – their labour isn’t noticed as it is commodified but this commodity is only noticed in its absence, just as the cleaners themselves are generally unseen by the people they clean for.



[1]   Marx, K. (1867) ‘Capital - Volume 1’


[2]    Johnson, B (2008) ‘Persons and Things’