My Life As A Cleaner: Having New Found Respect For Our Cleaners

My back was aching from the cleaning, but the clinic was going to open in another hour and I couldn’t stop to rest. Otherwise, I would be cleaning while the patients were walking in and it would be inconvenient to them.

Unknown to most people, after I lost my job in the middle of June, I took up a cleaning job for about 2 weeks. A friend of mine had asked me if I knew anyone who could do some cleaning work for the clinic that he works at, as his cleaning lady was going on leave. I volunteered as I had just got out of a job, and I thought that it would be a useful experience to learn from.

I had to clean for 6 days a week and it was a part-time job, which meant that I needed to clean for 4 hours a day. Every morning, I would start with cleaning the toilets, sweeping and mopping the floors and wiping the counter, tables, chairs and beds with Dettol. It was quite a big clinic, so it took several hours to get through the whole place.

Before I had started cleaning, another cleaning auntie had shared with me on her experience. Once, when she was scrubbing the toilet bowl, as her brush went into the depths of the bowl, the shit which were stuck inside loosened and were released back into the toilet bowl. It was horrifying. On the first day of my job, I thought to myself if that would happened.

When I was on the job, I would take breakfast every morning, and wonder to myself if I would see shit later, and if it would then overturn the appetite. I can imagine how you would need to train for a very strong stomach to handle that!

Thankfully, on my first day, as I surveyed the three toilets – there was a male and female toilet, and a toilet for users on wheelchairs – the toilets were clean. The cleaning lady before me had been meticulous in her job and had obviously taken her job very seriously. She had different brushes for the different toilets, and had arranged her things very neatly. I felt that I had a responsibility to make sure that I upkeep what she did, and maintained the cleanliness.

I scrubbed the toilet bowls, urinals and the floor and washed the basins with detergent. Later on, I also used detergent and bleach to mop the floors and Dettol to wipe the rest of the furniture. By the end of the two weeks, my hands and feet were very dry and there were signs of cracking.

Everytime as I poured the washing powder onto the toilet bowl or floor, I thought to myself that this was what the cleaning aunties and uncles had to do almost everyday. I wondered what side effects it would have to their health.

Not only that, they would also be in close contact with the lingering dirt and dust. So, you can imagine if the cleaning aunties and uncles were working for the past 30, 40 years of their lives, how this would have quite drastic effects to their health.

I was only working for 2 weeks and I was already thinking about this. I wonder how it would be for someone who has to clean for several decades, knowing and bearing with the effects it can have on one’s health.

2014-07-16 16.26.24-2

Making sure it’s clean inside

My Encounter With S***

Shit did come a few days into the job. One day, when I went to do my daily inspection of the toilets before I started cleaning them, I saw one of the toilet bowls with pieces of shit in it. I think the cleaning lady would be quite used to it by now and might have handled it better than I would.

At home, we would ensure that our toilets are cleaned after each use, so the toilets were generally clean. Even if I were to use it, I would wash it clean after every use.

Thus when I saw the pieces of shit stuck onto the inner walls of the toilet bowl, I started spraying water to wash it away. But it was a very resilient piece of shit! It just wouldn’t go away no matter how I sprayed at it!

Then, I thought to myself, why not sterilise it with the washing detergent, in the hope of “cleaning” it? What was I even thinking, right? But I did. So I poured washing powder on it, then washing detergent, and then bleach. But it still wouldn’t go away!

So, I thought, OK, let the detergent stay for now and hopefully that would make it easier to wash later on. I started scrubbing the floors and the other toilet bowls. But it was not long before I was worried if the shit would actually solidify further under the detergent which would make it more difficult to clean later on, and quickly used water to wash the detergent away. The shit remained, unmovable.

I know, the whole cleaning the shit felt like a whole operation, right? Finally, I decided to leave it, wash the other parts of the toilet first and cleaned that toilet bowl the last. When I finally did, I scrubbed at the shit with the brush. Thankfully, it did go away with the scrubbing!

The toilets that I was working with were generally well-maintained and the users also helped to keep it clean. But I can’t help but imagine how the cleaners who had to spend their whole day cleaning toilets at the shopping malls, which were used by thousands of people everyday, and had to maintain it at daily intervals! Imagine the amount of shit splattered all over!

It reminded me of how the toilets were well-maintained in some of the other countries that I had visited, in Australia, some parts of Europe, and in South Korea. This got me thinking – the cleanliness of our toilets isn’t only the job and duty of the cleaning auntie or uncle, but also of all the users, to help maintain it, so that we do not stain the toilet bowl or cause the pee to be sprayed around. It meant that we should try to keep the toilets clean and wipe off any stray shit or pee, so that we could help keep the toilets clean.

Perhaps the Japanese, for example, are more socially conscious of their responsibility, also because from young, children are taught to clean the toilets in their schools, so that they know how it would feel like to clean, and how it is thus appropriate for them to also make sure they do not dirty the toilets, and to keep it clean for the next person. This also reminded me of a teacher when I was in school, who actually brought a toilet seat to an assembly session, to teach us the methods to shit and pee properly, so that we could keep the toilets clean. I actually thought what he did was a really good lesson, but I don’t think it ever caught on.

2014-07-16 16.30.59

Job Satisfaction! Proud of the bowl I washed!

Should Our Elderly Still Be Working In Menial Jobs In Their Golden Years?

Back to my cleaning. By the end of the week, my back was aching badly. It felt sore. Even two weeks after I stopped cleaning, I still felt the soreness on my back.

I’ve always thought that our elderly shouldn’t be working in their later years, especially in menial jobs, and should be able to retire gracefully and with dignity. Now that I’ve actually worked as a cleaner, I am even more convinced that our elderly shouldn’t be working as cleaners, as odd-job labourers or cans and cardboard collectors! In their old age, their bodies would be more tired and it would take longer for them to recover. I cannot imagine what it is like for them to have to clean, day in, day out, for 6 days of the week and as long as 12 hours a day! I don’t think it’s quite humane or respectful to treat our elderly in such a way!

In other countries, say in South Korea, for the elderly, their idea of keeping active is to go trekking on the weekends. And if you travel on the metro, you would see the elderly dressed in their hiking gear on weekends, to go trekking in their mountains. And they would have earned enough before their retire to afford to buy the gear as well! However, in Singapore, I just don’t think it’s quite right that the idea of keeping active for our elderly is to clean at a coffee shop.

In a way, I knew what it was like to work the whole day in a menial job. In the second week of cleaning, I was also helping my dad. So, I had to clean in the morning, rush home to scrub myself clean, then rush down to help my dad for another few hours. I had to stand around for the whole day. On the first day that after it happened, I woke up feeling really tired. My hands and legs were aching and I had to go through another day or standing, washing and moving around. I really didn’t want to get out of bed. So, you can imagine what it’s like for our elderly to work for the whole day and hardly resting, and how it would be quite unbelievable for them to have to do this, at their age, some as old as 60, 70 or 80! I really don’t think it’s right for us or for the government to allow this to happen to them.

At the coffee shop, there is an old lady who is already 87. She would be at the coffee shop collecting cans almost every evening. When she sits down to eat, you can see her hands shake feebly. But she is still working. Once, I saw her trying to step on the cans to flatten them. But her legs no longer have the strength, and it was taking a long time, so I helped her to flatten them. A friend of mine came by and helped to collect cans for her, so that she could rest.

Should We Pay Our Low-Income Workers Such Low Wages When Every Job Has Its Value?

If you speak to many of the elderly, they would tell you that they want to be treated with respect and with dignity. Isn’t that what all of us want?

As such, it is honestly quite pathetic that we pay them such low wages and when they need help from the government, the government would give them a paltry amount, some as low as just $100 to use every month. Every person has dignity and wants to live with dignity. The very least we could do is to pay people well, and if they need help, not to throw them a little bit of cash but to actually give them enough to put them back on their feet. Otherwise, why would I even want to take money from you if it looks like I’m begging from you?

As a cleaner, I was paid $20 for 4 hours. This meant that I was earning $5 an hour. This is already very low, but I understand that for some cleaners who were working 12 hour days, 6 days a week, and as late as last year, they were only earning $800 a month! This is even lesser than $3 an hour!

And can you imagine that this hasn’t changed for the past 20 years? I honestly cannot imagine how anyone in their right mind would allow this to happen. Actually, once you work as a cleaner, you begin to realise how even as a cleaner, you need to be committed to your job, to do your job well. You need to put in effort and it does require skills. Where are you going to clean today, how are you going to clean it, how do you work efficiently? These are all things to think about. And how do you clean the toilet as clean as you can? It requires skills, handwork, commitment and passion, even as a cleaner to do your job well. It’s not some menial job that we should just chuck some people into.

Just because we don’t work in these jobs and we think they have little or no value, then decide to throw some random people to do the job and then give them low wages, doesn’t mean they are deserving of this. Once we really do the jobs that they do, do we realise that their jobs are very important as well.

I was comparing what I was previously doing in the office with cleaning. What makes cleaning lesser than what I was doing in the office? In fact, cleaning was so much more tiring. Sometimes you don’t have time to rest, not like when we are in the office. Once you go on the job, you understand the value of the job and the worth of the people doing these jobs.

I’ve always believed that low-income workers shouldn’t be paid such low wages of $800 or $1,000. Now that I’ve worked as a cleaner, I truly believe that they deserve much higher wages, of at least $1,500. In fact, I still think that this is too low. I would think for the current cost of living in Singapore, they should be paid at least $2,000.

Recently, if you’ve read an article on The Online Citizen, they had found how a cleaning company, with contracts with the government, is earning millions in profits. If they increase the wages of their workers by twice over, they would still be earning millions! Makes you wonder if we should be paying our cleaners only $1,000 when these companies can pay them $2,000 and still earn very comfortably. If our government does not want to enact laws to protect their wages in spite of the clear imbalance, I really question what the government is doing for the citizens.

We Need To Protect Our Low-Income Workers

What I find worrying too is that in some of these jobs, they might be contract positions, or you might only be paid if you work. If you don’t, you don’t get paid. On the second week of the job, I fell sick on one of the days. I came down with fever and a flu. I couldn’t go to work.

Imagine for someone who was earning only $3 an hour, every hour sick is every hour wasted which could help to earn even as little! They might also not have additional insurance from the company or not be able to afford to buy insurance. So, if they had to see the doctor or go to the hospital, each such decision is a very tedious one! A low-income person might choose not to spend $40 or $50 to see the doctor, because he would have to lose a day of earnings or two, just to see the doctor! And if you had to go to the hospital, you might have to lose half a month of what you earn just to go to the hospital. Already, $1,000 is barely enough to survive on. Thus a person might put off even seeing the doctor, and fall sicker and sicker.

Makes you wonder, if it’s right that the government continues to spend only 30% of total health expenditure when other countries with prices as high as Singapore would see their governments spend as much as 85% on total health expenditure.

Learning To Respect All Workers Because All Of Us Have Our Value

After two weeks of cleaning, I am so much more convinced that we need to pay our low-income workers well. If wages had caught up with inflation and has rose as fast as that of the highest-income, the minimum anyone in Singapore should earn today is $2,000. But today, there could still be as many as 40% of Singaporeans who earn less than $2,000.

After working as a cleaner, you realise every job has its value, every person has their worth and that no matter what job you do, it takes effort and skills. And it’s a job that requires your commitment and your passion to do well in. Commonly, we think that some jobs do not require skills but once you work in the job, you realise it requires a special set of skills which you never knew was needed, until you actually do the job yourself. Then, you learn to respect the job for what it is and the people who do the job for who they are.

I do appreciate taking up the job as a cleaner. It gave me a very valuable insight which you would not have, unless you take on the job by yourself. It gives you a new found respect for our cleaners, and our low-income workers. It gives you the realisation that they deserve our every respect. Some people look down on people who take on menial jobs but when you really work in these jobs, you realise that they are every way as equal as we are and deserve as much respect, if not more than we do.

And when you realise that, you will understand and be affirmed that we should pay everyone fair wages and appropriate wages, so that people can earn enough to live decently and with dignity. And by this, I mean at least $1,500 to $2,000, with Singapore’s current cost of living.

As I was working as a cleaner, I kept thinking to myself that the MPs and ministers need to work as a cleaner for at least 2 weeks or a month in their life. Once they do so, they will realise how it’s hard work. Then, they will stop telling us that the $1,000 that they are paying to cleaners on their ‘Progressive Wage Model’ is good enough. It is not, when $1,000 is not enough to live on in Singapore and when some cleaning companies are earning millions in profits and have more than enough to give back to their workers, and still earn millions.

Update On My Legal Case

Also, a quick update, my pre-trial conference will be held tomorrow, on 17 July, at 2.30pm at Chamber 4A at the Supreme Court. It will be a close-door session where the court will give both sides the timeline to submit our affidavit.

The prime minister has filed for a summary judgment, which means that he wants the court to pass the judgment without going through a court trial, and then go straight to asking the courts to award the damages. The court hearing will be held on 18 September at 10am. My lawyer, M Ravi, will fight the case for me and to resist the summary judgment.

2014-07-16 16.28.31

Yes, this is how I look when I clean. Explains why the hair is all over!


  1. WildCard

    Sometimes. .. It makes one wonder whether you know what you are taking about. .. taking matters to the toilet show you lack a workable vision

    • lee xian loon

      Either maybe you can clean his toilets…or have u went to scrub the pm orifice recently again? You smell of pap smear

    • julian

      Wildcard: Are you insane when you made that comment? What’s so wrong about humbling oneself to feel how a person of a lower income would feel? I think you probably have not done any community service before. Have you seen any of our minister doing this before?

  2. Bai Hu

    Hi Roy, it’s good to hear that u developed an empathy to all the cleaner uncles and aunties who worked so hard and for so long. But on the other hand, have u tried to look for some other jobs like administration, executive, officers, etc jobs? Your English is actually above-average and i think you should widen your job options.

    • KeepGoing

      Yes, consider the MP job, even though it is only a part-time job. Less hours but pays a lot better than a cleaner job.

  3. Isabella Chen

    Uh, I think he did the job not because it was the only one available to him, but because he wanted to understand what these elderly cleaners go through. I think Singaporeans teenagers should be enlisted for civil service work like this as part of NS (both male and female). In Europe it’s common to see middle class teens/ college students doing work like this (cleaning, delivering mail, collecting garbage, painting houses.) I think it contributes a lot to a more equal and cohesive society. In any case, grannies should not be doing this kind of work.

    • Bai Hu

      Hi Madam, thanks for sharing your idea. I think u are right. Roy is trying to understand what these lower income elderly people are going thro.

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  5. jasmine

    Well, the PAP is out of touch. They think cleaners are not human. They think all Singaporeans can be a cleaning supervisor and therefore come up with an idiotic progressive wage model and force people to take up useless courses to enrich their cronies who conduct those courses. I dare say millions of dollars are being siphoned off through subsidies provided by the government.

    • Alan

      Either you people are just gullible or you have decided to turn a blind eye on the act because of a lost sense of logic!
      Fortunately most of the Singaporean still have some grey matter up there in the skull!

  6. The Oracle

    One of my early jobs was cleaning a factory and I agree it can be hard work. One tip Roy – gloves!

  7. WP

    40% of Singaporeans earning below $2000?? Roy, I suggest you check out the department of statistics of Singapore in the website on our wages.

  8. C H

    Yes Roy…
    I always tell people…
    Only when we do the work that understanding comes..

    Whenever anyone collects my tray at food center i thank them with a big smile.

    When i use the toilets, i ensure i don’t mess it up as if i would be using it again later.

    Most people who talk with mouth n think in mind without hands on are just able-body in handicap mode with only impractical knowledge.

    I did shit jobs n jobs that many people of these generations will rather loose a limb in exchange. I Started work under the sun n on deep shits when i was 10yrs young.

    To an extend some a overly pampered or misguided by their educated parents.

    We can never out talk the brainy because they are at different level n will never understand it.
    They can only know in their head.
    Whenever i saw these brainies planting a tree / showed face in a mass run while the news made headlines of it..
    i felt like vomiting.. disgusting…

    It was just a job to them… show face, forget it n look forward to pay day.

    Keep it going Roy, you are a great leader with huge passion in the making…

    Only when we underwent the tough times, we will be great leaders. Unlike those talk talk leaders who always assume they know the hard lives of the citizen.
    Sending the wrong help that never reaches the needy but fatten the pockets of the suppliers.

    • Wilson

      Look at Nelson Mandela life what he went thru before he became a President he was even willing to give his life to help the ppl break free from apartheid how many leaders in the world today have reached this level of love for the ppl ?

  9. Candy

    the reason why people keep talking down on cleaners or use them as example is because they have little knowledge of what goes on in MOST Singaporean lives(most people circle of contact is small and superficial). MOST don’t open up( to you) till you read about them in the papers(too late) or if and when approved for printing otherwise, like many, will die in oblivion.

    Money problems are everywhere and affect all levels of salaried workers. To say that you have met the medium income level and freed of financial problems is incorrect because one’s financial duties, requirements and responsibilities are different from the other.

    Truth, money can never be enough for most people except those earning sinful paycheques.

  10. Xmen

    Occasionally, you read about CEOs of big corporations working anonymously as a sales person or a worker on the floor. Sometimes you hear about a Minister trying to survive on welfare. These are people that take their jobs seriously and care about workers and people. There is nothing wrong working as a cleaner or social worker. In fact, everyone should volunteer time on such activities in a compassionate society.

    • Not bodoh

      Anybody can do that if people are ultimately under your charge and get paid fabulously for it. Does a fraction of your time to Publicise your ground work changes the lives of lowly workers? He ll no. Impressed? He ll no. Even if the minister chops off his little pinkie to serve the people still Not Impressed!

      There are too many suckers out there. Count me out!

  11. Verygay

    Pointless to talk about the plight of low wages because they will end up getting crumbs to pacify all the self righteous noises and policy makers.

  12. Gnregn Yor

    I see you trying hard to gain back sympathy and the attention of Singaporeans.

    Sorry, you are so passe now. We all know you made false allegations against the PM and now you are using the money of stupid people that you have duped to pay for your damages.

    I have no idea how you sleep at night. If i were you, i will return all their money and work my ass off as a bankrupt to slowly pay the PM back.

    Think your brain, not your backside when you blog next time.

  13. Ivan Ho

    Thanks Roy for your sharing!
    Just compare what the cleaners have to go thru’ to earn just $3/hr and how much they value their work with those MPs who can’t bring their backsides to sit on the Parliament House bench for the affairs of the nation and being paid $15K/mth speaks volume for these cleaners. If I have my way, it will be nice to deduct the MPs’ allowance for irresponsible absenteeism to the cleaners’ pockets. I really wish that these cleaners are paid decently with due respects!

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  15. Chua

    Bravo for hands on experience. Indeed, their job is tough, poor paying, back breaking, valuable and still require some thinking and competency. Sad truth is someone needs to do that job not matter if it is an old man, scholar, foreign worker or anybody else. The norm for salary is not set by government but by private corporation and thus far it is low. As opposed to your view that cleaning company is earning well, i know for a fact an affable owner of cleaning company survive on below $5k per month working his ass off getting cleaners and contracts. At last he quitted and became a regular employee and is much less stressed. Just as it is tough to be a cleaner, it is no cakewalk to rise above. Those who for some reason cannot then have to do the work no one else wishes to. In short, it is a social issue present everywhere but only solution comes from individual breaking their own limits.

  16. Jared Kayes

    A very thought-provoking post indeed. I think everyone should do a job such as cleaning to see what low income work is all about. I had a cleaning job to earn my way through school and certainly hope I would not have to do that hard work to support myself in my golden years.

  17. Pingback: One Year after I Lost My Job and What I Have Learnt | The Heart Truths

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