The office cleaner

Fleeing from Colombia, Maria Gonzalez finds grubby machismo in the City too.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

As Maria Gonzalez bends over to pick up some lazily discarded sandwich wrappers in the corner by the water cooler, a pair of libidinous young analysts - whose lunch, only moments before, the rubbish had contained - are snickering to each other just a few feet away. 'Mate,' says one, his posh-boy voice carrying further than it ought, 'you so fancy the cleaner.

Have you got a rubber glove fetish or something?' The other protests loudly before, looking her up and down, he admits: 'If she was in a posh frock, you might ...'

Colombian national Maria Gonzalez, 25, may be 'only' the office cleaner and dressed to work rather than impress, but she understands every word these dismal specimens of British youth have exchanged. Indeed, if she were in an office in France or Germany, she would understand equally well what the boorish, privileged male employees were saying about her there, too.

The story that finds Maria cleaning up after these City types is a mixture of political instability and love, with a dash of pure foolishness. Back home, she grew up in a lower middle-class family. She excelled at school and through hard work and only a little bit of craft (well, you have to, don't you? as her father said) went on to study medicine at the University of Bogota. Almost qualified, she was helping out at a rural practice near her home when she fell for a dashing young man. But love makes fools of the cleverest of us and Maria's chico turned out to be on rather more than nodding terms with the country's bloodthirsty FARC rebels.

When the excitement of dating a man whose pastimes included kidnapping and supplying half of Miami's coke habit palled, she discovered that a simple 'Yo no quiero' wasn't enough. Instead, she found herself terrified of FARC and shunned by almost everyone else. She soon realised that hell hath no fury like a Marxist insurgent scorned and, fearful of her future, she blew her savings on a plane ticket and fled.

In Spain there were no angry rebels any more, but no jobs either. She headed for London. She'd hoped for a job translating but her purse was empty and her visa non-existent, so all she could manage was a contract cleaning agency with a lenient view of UK entry requirements. It's honest and she manages to make the pay cover her slender outgoings.

Maria has been on hands and knees with mop and bucket all day for six months now - plenty of time to regret her costly infatuation and unfinished college work. The thought of becoming a career cleaner is almost enough to drive her back to Colombia. But recently another possibility came up.

The City bank she cleans for does a lot of business in Latin America and, yesterday, Maria was emptying a head of department's wastebasket while the latter was struggling aloud with a Venezuelan acquisition document.

Maria offered help, translating the phrase colloquially and explaining that the intonation and context were also important to the meaning.

The head of department, Helen, was impressed, and the two chatted. For her, the experience had been an eye-opener: Helen was more used to interviewing production-line graduates with a 2.1 in Economics and a belief-beggaring sense of entitlement. In Maria, she found all those rare personal qualities and talents the bank claimed to be looking for in candidates for its graduate fast-track programme (as well as possessing valuable local knowledge of key markets and languages). So why was she cleaning the bogs? Helen decided things had to change around here and went off to make a start.

Outside the fishbowl of Helen's office, another oafish bloke has accidentally spilled his Starbucks double latte on the floor. When a colleague suggests he might want to it clean it up, he shrugs: 'Why? That's what we employ cleaners for' and goes back to fiddling with his BlackBerry. He's lucky the cleaner is more gracious than he is: there's a good chance she will be his boss inside two years.


1981 Born July 12, Florencia, Colombia.
Educated local schools, University of Bogota faculty of medicine
2004 Internship, Quibo (nr Florencia)
2005 Cleaner, MaidRight Cleaning (contracted to Levett's Banking)

Any resemblance to a real person is coincidental and unintended.

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