Love them or hate them, Paris needs to save its janitors.


(Janitor « Dheepan » in Dheepan by Jaques Audiard. Source: Dheepan)

France’s janitors, the “gardiens d’immeuble”, are getting old. With only few young men and women choosing this career path, janitors are aging faster than France’s working population. Janitors are at the core of the urban fabric in Paris, however this fact lacks recognition. While Paris’ residents take them for granted, the survival of the profession is at risk and potential consequences of that are being largely ignored.

This autumn the extinction of the profession became even more a conceivable scenario, as the 2012 decision to no longer provide accommodation lodges to janitors at their workplace came into effect.  In order to protest this decision, janitors had taken to the streets of Paris all summer. Their demands, carried by the slogan “Don’t touch my home!”, saw some success. Janitors in Paris’ HLM, the French abbreviation for social housing, were allowed to keep their work residences. “This finally signifies the recognition of the fundamental role of janitors by the public administration”, the main organizer of the protests, Plaine Commune Habitat, issued in a statement.

Contrary to common belief, author and professor of sociology at Paris-8-Saint-Denis, Jean-François Laé, believes the young generation of future janitors will endorse this decision, because it will provide for a proper separation between private and work life and thereby modernize the profession. Yet, it remains to be seen whether this policy will affect young people’s ambitions to join the ranks of janitors. According to recent statistics of the Association pour la Gestion de la Formation des Salariés des Petites et Moyennes Entreprises, more than 60 percent of janitors are over the age of 45, while only 15 percent are under the age of 34. This is mainly because not enough young people decide to enter the career path, but also because job creation depends on the retirement of current janitors and because private companies providing janitorial services have appeared on the market.

(Gardien d’Immeuble/Custodian. Source: C. Fabry)

Professional janitorial companies might seem as an effective and suitable alternative to having an assigned, potentially resident, janitor. One such company is Planete Gardiens,   a cleaning services franchise, whose mission statement contains “replacement of janitors” amongst its prime objectives and who has been charged with the replacement of 600 gardiens in recent years. However, it would be foolish to believe that professional janitorial services can fully replace a gardien d’immeuble. Once known as judgmental and moralizing “gardien-flics” (policing janitors), the janitor’s role and reputation has developed into being effective mediators amongst the neighbors in often very populated buildings on top of being responsible for maintenance. This has become their utmost advantage says Jean-François Laé, especially in Paris’ HLM, and therefore the profession must be preserved.

“She successfully acted as a diplomat,” Pauline E., a young student, says about her guardienne who helped her resolve a heated quarrel with her elderly upstairs neighbor in the 18th district. When a building has a janitor, neighbors tend to address their complaints about fellow residents to us, says Mohammad F., a janitor in the 15th district. “This allows for a more respectful tone in the residence, as tensions are mitigated by an intermediary”. Especially when residing at their workplace, janitors have a particular personal attachment to the harmony amongst residents and can be more invested to find solutions. However, the public administration decided to ignore such realities on the ground, complains Philippe Laurent, the president of Sceaux Habitat.

Responding to the disappearance of janitors through inaction or even dissolution of traditional features of the profession is a poor judgement call on the side of the public administration. For Paris not to loose an important thread of its urban fabric, Paris’ should make an active effort in job preservation. Active recruiting amongst French citizens or residents with a recent migration background could be a fruitful strategy. “The paid-for work residence has always been very appealing for us immigrants, as well as the diversity of tasks”, says Maria M. is one of many gardiens of Portuguese origin. In the 1990s one third of janitors were first or second generation immigrants from Portugal to France. Current statistics on ethnic origin are not available, yet inquiries or artistic treatment of the subject, like the film Dheepan by Jaques Audiard, may suggest that recent recruits could be even more diverse.

Flora Mory @flora_mory



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