My wife's life as a cleaner

There have been many discussions about increasing the wages of blue-collar workers.

Allow me to put in my penny's worth.

After 33 years as a production worker, my wife was retrenched in early 1999 due to adverse business conditions.

A few months later, she found a job as a cleaner. She took on the job with gusto.

She stayed with the same job and employer until she resigned in 2008 due to ill health.

She was 57 years old when she resigned.

Her starting salary was $700 a month gross. Her last pay was $750 gross.

That works out to about a $5.55 increment per year or 0.8 per cent a year.

During the nine years that she was with the company, she was assigned to many sites including the National University of Singapore and Ngee Ann Polytechnic, and condominiums like Leedon Towers.

While working at one place, she was sometimes sent to support another place for various reasons. It was not frequent, but it did happen.

Bus fare to and from work was on her own expense. Sometimes, after reporting at one site, she would be asked to go to another site without reimbursement.

Sometimes, she had to take more than one bus to work.

Inevitably, she was the first to leave the house, often at the crack of dawn.

Her job was physical - she had to be on her feet throughout the day.

Respite only came during lunch and tea breaks.

Depending on the work sites, the conditions varied from demanding to very demanding. Very often, she was at the mercy of our capricious weather.

When she fell sick, medical fees were not reimbursed.

She worked "five and a half days" officially, but her work on Saturdays would end between 2.00pm and 4.00pm, depending on job site.

She started with seven days of annual leave and, after nine years, left without having that increased.

With all these discussions about the pros and cons about increasing the salary of cleaners, perhaps a pertinent question is: Given our economic environment, can anybody survive on $750 a month?

It is barely sufficient.

Many cleaners are working to survive or to support a family. If, at the end of the month, the take-home salary is so minuscule that the end defeats the means, the motivation to forge on fizzles out.

This is probably one of the reasons for the high turnover and lack of interest in this industry.

Could all the parties debating the pros and cons about the wage increase come together to work out a fair compensation for cleaners like my wife?


This article was first published in The New Paper.

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