Cleaner Mounia Benyahia: ‘People leave all sorts of things on the toilet’
Without support staff, there is no university. Univers goes in search of the people who have been making sure for years that the university keeps going. Mounia Benyahia has worked as a cleaner at Tilburg University since 2000 and thinks there should be more appreciation for cleaning work. “Even toddlers leave a toilet cleaner than students.”
The facial expression of Mounia Benyahia (1963) leaves little to the imagination when she talks about what she encounters while working as a cleaner at the university. “On the toilet, people really leave everything,” she says, still in disbelief. “Sanitary napkins, the call of nature, vomit, pee, diarrhea, soiled underwear, blood, everything. When I find this kind of filth, I think: I hate my life, why am I doing this work?” She laughs on the wrong side of her face. “The people who leave the toilet like this have had no upbringing at home,” Benyahia suspects, “otherwise you wouldn’t behave like this.” She waits a moment and then says, “Even toddlers leave a toilet cleaner than students.”
Once she did get a very unpleasant surprise when she entered the toilets of the then Prisma Building in the morning. “It smelled really bad there. A vagrant had locked himself in the toilets at night and stayed there overnight. He was lying in his own excrement. Well, actually the whole restroom was covered in poop.”
Before moving to the Netherlands with her husband in 1987, Benyahia was a pharmacy assistant in Morocco. The couple originally planned to return to Morocco in due course. But, by then, their four children were grounded in Tilburg, so the family decided to stay. Benyahia’s neighbor in Tilburg-West was a manager in cleaning at the university. Through her, Benyahia rolled into the profession. “The Tias Building was almost finished when I started at the university in 2000. The construction workers were still walking around and there was a layer of dust everywhere. I thought: how am I supposed to clean here? My colleagues then gave me a lot of advice. I accepted all that because I learned from that.”
When most of the students and staff close their eyes one more time, Benyahia is already out of bed to get the university spic and span for the new day. She starts at six and is usually out of sight again when it gets busier on campus. The fact that people do not always see her also has a downside. “Students think it gets clean by itself. They leave junk behind because it will be cleaned up anyway. I really don’t understand why you throw apples and banana peels on the ground because there are trash cans all over campus.” She also needs to get something else off her chest. “People think we cleaners are less. We’re not. Not everyone can clean, you have to be smart for that.”
Not for men
When Benyahia talks about her team, she beams. “My colleagues are the most fun part of my job. We all get along well.” The cleaning team at the university consists of about 60 colleagues, seven of whom are men. “Men are not made for cleaning work,” Benyahia laughs. “Although, some can do it.” They work with a diverse team, she adds, and everyone helps each other. “Last year a colleague celebrated 40 years of service. That one is now retired. I can make it to retirement, too. But the forty years? No, I won’t reach that,” she says, shaking her head.
Six times a year, the quality of the cleaning work is checked by a body from outside the university. “I now work as a team leader in the Cobbenhagen and Koopmans Buildings and in the restaurant. When those are approved, we as a team are always very happy. It means we won’t get any additional inspections for the time being.”
Cleaning is a top-level sport
It is nice to be appreciated, Benyahia thinks. “When I was still working in Tias, I got a lot of compliments,” she says, smiling. “When someone thinks I do my job well, it motivates me tremendously. Unfortunately, in general, not much attention is paid to what we do. But, if one day the cleaning is not done, you can already see the difference. And then all of a sudden complaints come in, while there is never a message when it is clean.”
The restrooms she likes least. Lecture halls, on the other hand, are her favorite. “Those are big and tall and look a bit like a movie theater auditorium,” she says. Study rooms and the coffee corner are also part of Benyahia’s work area. Cleaning is different for everyone, she thinks. “I find vacuuming quite difficult, but someone else finds it hard to clean high cabinets,” she says. Either way, it’s physically demanding work. “It’s like top-level sports: you have to move correctly, or you’ll get hurt. In addition to basic cleaning training, we receive training in how to move ergonomically. For example, the length of the mop stick and the tube of the vacuum cleaner must be adjusted just right.”
Men spray everywhere
The image of the cleaner with fragrant suds is not quite accurate, she says. “We work with very few cleaning products. Only the sanitary is done with detergent, the rest just with a microfiber cloth and water. The used microfiber cloths go into a big washing machine in Building A at the end of the workday.” To the eternal question of whether the men’s or the women’s toilets are the dirtiest, Benyahia can give a redeeming answer: “The men’s,” she answers firmly. “There’s always pee on the floor there. Those men spray everywhere!” she says, laughing.
With her professional eye, she automatically looks at how cleanliness is in other places. “In hospitals or restaurants, I check immediately. For example, whether there are cobwebs, or whether the handles of doors are clean. After all, those get dirty very quickly.” Of course, Benyahia also keeps her own home neat. “I don’t have to do that alone, but I still prefer to clean it all myself at home.”
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Translated by Language Center, Riet Bettonviel