The people who clean up after you

Condoms, puke, and pubic hair

Every day, a team of cleaners picks up your rubbish, wipes away your coffee stains, and scrapes your chewing gum from the urinals so you don’t have to study for exams in a dump. Their job is to keep the library spotless. It’s a doomed mission.
By Edward Szekeres / Photos by Félipe Silva

It’s six in the morning the first day of exam week. Students are still asleep in their beds after a late night of studying or partying. But in the cold dawn, a team is already hard at work preparing the library for chaos.

Around thirteen thousand people will pass through the library doors today. They will leave enough dirt, hair, and trash behind to fill dozens of large garbage bags. Of the ten thousand garbage bags collected from the library every year, there are at least two entire bags worth of discarded chewing gum alone.

The fifteen-strong cleaning team is hard at work before the sun peeks over the Academy building. They have less than three hours to prep all of the library’s floors, stairs, and 2100 work stations. Doors open at half past eight; a crush of students has already queued up outside. Thousands will flood through the turnstiles within the first hour.

When they do, they will be greeted by spotless desks, shiny toilets, and immaculate floors. But it won’t be long before someone spits gum out in a urinal or spills pizza delivery garlic sauce on a toilet seat.

Daily grind

During the day, the cleaners zig-zag through crowded library corridors cleaning up behind careless students as they go. They wipe away every spill and smudge: every day, every week, every weekend.

Alex pushes a cart filled with garbage bags. He completes three or four tours of the building each day. He moves swiftly, as he has every day for the last twenty years. His last round will end at ten in the evening. The late night shift gets off at eleven.

The morning team will be back in a few hours to start the grind again.

Morning shift (6AM – 8.30AM)

The roar of an industrial vacuum echoes through the large hallway of the empty library. The stairs are empty save for a lone figure, vacuum on his back, hoovering the stairs. He has the silhouette of a Ghostbuster.

Now the library is so clean you could eat off the floor – and many students do. ‘Some people eat their entire breakfast on the stairway. Others leave sandwiches and bananas on the toilets. Once we even found a smoking barbeque on one of the balconies’, recounts Danny van Lang, who oversees the cleaning process.

But cleaners don’t just find food in weird places. They have also found drugs, alcohol, love letters, underwear, a buddha statue, a slush machine, and even a ‘call-me’ note with a phone number. ‘We haven’t called yet’, laughs Van Lang.

You’d expect students to have certain class and know how to behave appropriately

Cleaners move from floor to floor in teams of seven. Some of them dust tables and vacuum carpets in the study areas. Others, grim-faced, pull on rubber gloves and tackle the toilets.

An Englishman, Lee, is on toilet duty today. It’s an uneventful cleaning day, he laughs; nothing too out of hand. He’s seen some really nasty things in here. Some students are afraid to make contact with the toilet seat, so they hover – and miss. He’s cleaned poop, pee, and even puke off most of these tiles, he says. He finds used condoms all the time, usually in a stall with smudgy handprints on the walls.

‘You’d expect students to have certain class and know how to behave appropriately’, Lee says. ‘But it could be worse.’

Rushed work

He knows what he’s talking about. These cleaners are professionals; they do the same tasks day in and day out. The job is repetitive and physical, so they have been trained to use special techniques to prevent strains and injuries. They also use high-quality material and modern equipment, like mineral free and eco-friendly ozone water that doesn’t leave stains.

Lee is an expert in cleaning bathrooms. Nonchalant, he reaches for what looks to be a lock of pubic hair sitting in the sink. ‘Well, somebody had a shave here.’

Everything has to be ready before the students arrive. The pressure is immense. Seven people per floor is not enough, says manager Van Lang. ‘There are so many things we need to do: stairs, floors, desks, toilets, cafeterias, and much more. We only have two and a half hours and we have to rush it. We want to do 100%, but we can’t.’

Day shift (8.30AM – 11PM)

Students have been waiting in the cold for the library to open for nearly an hour. The cleaners watch them push through the revolving doors as the queue snakes into the foyer.

The cleaners can understand that the students are anxious and stressed about exams. But they can’t understand why they insist on being reckless or disrespectful – like when they enter the toilets while the cleaners are working, or block the elevators when cleaners need to get through.

That’s a particular frustration for Geert, the master of the library’s cafeterias. He spends his day pushing a heavy cart from floor to floor, refilling the coffee machines with cups and supplies. He always starts at the top. By the time he gets to the ground floor, the machines upstairs are empty again.

We’re working for the students, but it seems like they don’t know that

‘One coffee machine spits out around 35 thousand cups every six months. So that’s a lot of cart pushing. But people often don’t let me in the elevator and just ignore me’, he says.

‘We’re working here for the students, but it seems like they don’t know that’, adds Van Lang. He says they are cleaners, not garbage collectors. ‘If only people cleaned up after themselves and treated this place more like their home, we wouldn’t be delayed so much in our normal duties. It’s such a small thing to throw away your own rubbish.’

Mundane yet essential

It’s a big problem when library hours are extended for exams and students come in and out in droves. ‘During exam weeks, our cleaners do everything on the run. They are so tired at the end of the day’, says Albert van der Kloet, the library’s facility manager.

He’s worked at the library for 33 years. He’s seen its growth and refurbishment, and the ever-growing number of students. ‘We have 2.4 million people in this building every year. It’s more than ever.’

The hours are longer and the work is getting harder. But Alex, Geert and the rest continue to do their job with the same fervour and passion. Students seem oblivious to their mundane yet essential work. But the cleaners don’t mind. They all agree on this. ‘99% of people are nice to us. And that motivates us. We do get tired, but we will be back tomorrow.


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