Accepted Paper:

Public space and Invisible work: street cleaners in France  


Marie-Pierre Gibert (Université Lumière Lyon 2-EVS)

Paper short abstract:

Research with street cleaners has shown that what brings them satisfaction at work lays somehow on other dimensions than the ones visible in their job description. For instance to ‘bring some social well-being to the public space’, and they regret not being recognized for it.

Paper long abstract:

According to their job description, street cleaners are expected to keep the streets and roads clean, as well as to report any problems or malfunction of the public space and street furniture. However, their work seem quite invisible from the outside and what is seen of it often appears in counter-relief: one seems to realise that they exist when their work is not done. As pointed out by E.C. Hughes (1951), a single work label may encompass a wide multiplicity of tasks and dimensions of work in terms of actions, protagonists and/or working conditions. Yet many of them are partly or completely invisible, that is, unknown, unrecognized and/or 'hidden' (Wadel 1979), although as important (if not more so) as the known and recognized dimensions, precisely because they play a central role in what really brings pleasure for and/or constraints on the workers.

When conducting participant observation with street cleaners, it appears that what brings them satisfaction at work lays somehow on other dimensions than the ones visible in this job description. In particular, many of them underline how much they appreciate interactions with various local actors, dimensions that they sometimes express as 'bringing some social well-being to the public space'. Yet, regrets for not being recognized as such often crept in discussions, permitting us to reflect on the paradoxical visibility and invisibility of workers and their labour in the public space, and the lack of social, economical and/or official recognition to the invisible side-dimensions of any specific profession.

Panel P081
The unexplored dimensions of work