One of the joys of those long waits in airports or train stations are the opportunities that arise to sit and just watch people. On our recent return from South Africa we were in the airport having a coffee and something to eat and I noticed the young lady cleaning the floors. In fact it was difficult not to notice her in her uniform of bright red top and bright red trousers and purple rubber gloves. The only thing missing was a big sign around her neck saying, ‘This is a rotten job & the pay is lousy.’ As I watched her working I was struck by her body language. She didn’t lift her feet but shuffled along in her flat, black shoes. Her face was expressionless and her eyes were dim as if someone had turned the lights off. She moved mechanically around the airport sweeping the floor and picking up litter and, despite her bright clothes and purple rubber gloves, nobody noticed her. She moved to avoid the passengers rather than anyone moving to allow her to do her job. As I watched I wondered what she would be doing when her work was finished for the day. I imagined her facing a long walk back to a shanty town – but then I realised that my stereotypical images of life in South Africa were in danger of influencing my judgements.
In the same airport I saw lots of other people in uniforms. There were the waiters and waitresses in the restaurants and coffee shops, the police, airport staff, cabin crew from various airlines. They also wore bright uniforms but the difference was that the majority of people noticed them. Was this because these people were doing jobs that we either admired, were similar to the jobs we did or were jobs we would aspire to. Nobody wanted the job of cleaning the floors. Nobody wanted the red uniform and purple rubber gloves. So the best way to deal with this problem is to pretend it’s not there, so no one saw her.
I was glad to be home, back in the UK, where things are different. As I sat at Euston station having a cup of coffee I again noticed the people in uniforms. There were the waiters and waitresses, the police, the station staff. Everyone could see them. Then I saw the person that they couldn’t see. This time she was wearing a bright yellow top and blue rubber gloves. The uniform was different but the job was the same, sweeping the floor careful to avoid getting in the way of the passengers who couldn’t see her. Like my lady in South Africa she didn’t lift her feet but shuffled along in her flat, black shoes. Her face was expressionless and her eyes were dim as if someone had turned the lights off. Again I wondered what she would be doing at the end of her working day.