Dirty work: take it or leave it

By Sean Carey

I recently went to a car wash at a small, edge of town shopping area near where I live in an affluent commuter town around 10 miles north of London. It is located in rented space in the car park in front of Homebase and Argos, two of the UK’s biggest retail chains. The car wash consists of a square metal hut resembling a small shipping container. Employees can stash their belongings in it and find shelter there during inclement weather.

Here is the routine at my local car wash: A driver parks behind other vehicles that are in the queue and then edges forward until a team of young men begin to perform their magical work. One employee uses a pressure water hose to remove most of the dirt and grime. Then two or three others use sponges and detergent to finish the job. The driver is still sitting behind the wheel.

After another move forward in the queue, a second group of men use chamois leathers to dry the car’s bodywork.

Now, for an extra fee the customer can request that the inside of the vehicle is cleaned. This choice entails getting out of the car. Which is what I did. As I stood and watched, three men began vacuuming and wiping interior surfaces.

I then went over to pay the owner, who I had briefly met on previous visits. It turns out that he is a Kosovar Albanian. “I have been living in the UK for 15 years,” he told me in response to my query about his background. “I go back Kosovo twice a year – it’s safe now – but this is now my home. My family is here.”

We got talking about the arrest of Ratko Mladic. He was delighted at the news that the former Bosnian Serb military leader had been captured, even though he was cynical about the probable motive for his arrest. “It’s simple really — Serbia wouldn’t be allowed to join the EU unless he was given up.” The ultra-nationalist Mladic had been sacrificed by his government in the pursuit of greater economic prosperity for the people, in other words.

The boss also said that when he first came to the UK he worked on building sites. It was very hard work – too hard, in fact. That is why he decided to start a car wash five years ago. After a slow start, it grew into a thriving business. He was part of the team that cleaned the cars but not any longer. Now, he does supervision and collects the money.

All his employees are Kosovar Albanians. “I look after them very well,” he said. He paused and then said: “Sometimes they want to earn more money, so they go and work on building sites. The last person who did that died after two weeks.” I thought that perhaps the former employee had had a heart attack, but this was not the case. He continued: “He was working away, and the building he was in collapsed. He was killed instantly.”

Afterwards, I found myself wondering why the boss had told me this story. The first thought that went through my mind was that it would be almost impossible to verify whether it was true or not. Even allowing for that, what was its purpose? I guessed that its immediate, primary function was a means of maintaining a conversation with a customer until the car had been cleaned “inside and out” as it said on the display board.

Because of its rehearsed quality, however, I believe the boss has likely told the same story to new and old members of his team. The story conveys an implicit warning about what might happen to them if they stray from his protective care.

As a “live myth” it would possess a level of plausibility for new migrants and would serve to create and maintain allegiance to the boss. Nevertheless, it is likely that over time the story will lose its power to engender loyalty. Why?

Because washing cars is very hard work, which is why only new, young migrant workers — almost always men in my experience — opt to do it. But once they have mastered basic language skills, different sectors of the economy offer new entrants to the workforce better paid and softer job options.

Like working in Argos or Homebase.

Dr Sean Carey is research fellow at CRONEM, Roehampton University.

(A version of this article has appeared on the Anthropology Works blog)

* Published in print edition on 10 June 2011

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