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The Covid-19 pandemic has drawn much attention to the value of essential workers, and particularly Singapore’s heavy dependence on cleaners.
Singaporeans generally consider work conditions poor and wages too low in the cleaning profession. They do not find this work rewarding or dignifying. The perception is that cleaning services are mostly staffed by migrant workers and elderly Singaporeans who do not have skills and take up the
job as a last resort.
The sad truth is that cleaning is essential work that is grossly undervalued. The cleaning industry’s heavy dependence on low-wage and low-skilled workers is clearly not sustainable in the long-term. The general public is perhaps much more appreciative of cleaners today due to the COVID-19
pandemic. Cleaners are at the frontlines exposed to health risks every day, just doing their jobs. However, this attitudinal shift is superficial. Deeper systemic change is necessary to lift the professionalism and value of cleaning services.
Nominated MP Walter Theseira and Pasir Ris Punggol GRC MP Zainal Sapari recently called on the government to restructure the economy in ways that could address the plight of these lower wage earners. Associate Professor Theseira said: “If we recognise that all work, especially socially essential work, has value, then we need to agree that there is no shame in having Singaporeans take up manual and service jobs.”
This is an eco-system that needs an overhaul in all aspects in order to effect significant improvements. To begin with, service buyers should move away from “cheap sourcing” towards outcome-based contracts. This will incentivise cleaning providers to reduce headcount and increase
productivity through job re-design and innovation. Service providers which employ the cleaners should stand firm, and not bid for contracts at unsustainably low prices. Cleaners’ job scopes should
be expanded and professionalised. They should be properly and continuously trained to take up more complex roles and be given a career ladder with accompanying salary increases.
We should take advantage of our fresh appreciation for the essential work of cleaners to reshape the cleaning industry, reduce reliance on cheap labour and develop a more professional and sustainable cleaning workforce .