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Class is embedded in the way we interact with each other. One has to make a conscious, concerted effort to avoid it, writes Alice Gambell

CleanersI recently worked out that I have been in paid work for more than half my life, and have had 32 different jobs.  Most of that “career” has involved low-paid service work, where I’ve usually been treated with contempt or indifference.  There were many reasons for my eventual decision to pursue a university education – not least, the need for a break from employment – but one of the most important was my desire to avoid being seen as a lesser person because of my occupation.

Many students come to university to broaden their horizons, have new experiences and get a different perspective on the world. Through that exploration and integration, some may try to distance themselves from the class they have come from and fight for causes they may have never considered had they not been to university. This is a positive and enriching experience for them, and often for others too.

It has been very interesting to witness so many students campaigning against a lot of the conditions I have experienced in previous jobs. It has been great to encounter well-fought campaigns, such as 3Cosas and the Justice for Cleaners campaigns, for workers to obtain a living wage, as well as the same rights and respect as the rest of their colleagues in the establishments in which they work.

My concern is that some of those students currently fighting for workers’ rights may one day soon enter into high-powered jobs. Will they remember that fight in their future workplaces, when they come into contact with the receptionists, cleaners and lowly admin bods?

From my experience, many don’t remember. Even when a graduate colleague claims to have a passion for human rights and dignity, and has spent their student and gap years campaigning for the rights of others, this doesn’t always mean they will treat you with equal dignity and respect. This is especially true if you are paid less than them.

Was the passion disingenuous or careerist? Was there a moment in that dusty forgotten past when even the management of the University of London also fought similar campaigns? At what point do people stop acknowledging their colleagues’ existence and needs because of their education and rank?

I think that for the majority of student campaigners the struggle is a genuine one, and they won’t forget to afford all their colleagues the same respect, but the behaviour I have observed in my working life suggests to me that although people come to university to seize the opportunity to explore new ideas, many are unable to break the mould of the class they are shaped for. That is, the systemic nature of class tends to override the political ideals of many of those who do succeed.

The fact is that a high proportion of people currently in university will enter into middle class occupations and positions of authority and power. Some of the students of today will be making decisions about wage distribution in the future. Many people at university have and will also be afforded certain opportunities because of the class they were born into: it is inescapable. Be it the lucky luxury of nepotism, or the confidence that comes with that class, these things carry on into employment.  Most don’t say no to those opportunities even when they have well-intentioned disagreements with the system.

That does not negate the need to fight now, it doesn’t devalue the passion I have seen, and it doesn’t mean that I think people shouldn’t bother being involved in social justice campaigns at university. Those are always good. You cannot help where you come from, but you can be mindful of how it might affect your worldview – even if you think you have it sorted now.

Whether in a university or a workplace, engaging with all enriches our lives, and acknowledging our colleagues’ existence and needs whether they are the cleaner or the CEO, will make a positive impact on somebody’s working life. Whether you go on to be a barrister, a vice-chancellor or a nurse, you should always remember that whatever background or class you come from, it doesn’t take much to be decent to each other.

From London Student


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