What I learnt from working as a cleaner for two months

The manager of an online services marketplace finds out what hard work it is to get a flat spotless

Mr Thong (left) put his money where his mouth is and stepped into the shoes of the freelance cleaners like Ms Lee (right) who use his online platform to find work. PHOTO: DANIEL THONG, SERVISHERO SINGAPORE

"You want to clean toilet? You sure or not?" freelance cleaner Isabell Lee exclaimed in disbelief. She paused for a couple of seconds and gave me a quizzical look. "I can teach you, but… why?"

Her response fascinated me. It made me realise how little I knew about the day-to-day experiences of ServisHero's freelance service providers (or "Heroes", as we call them). What was it like to be a freelance cleaner providing top-notch cleaning services while managing numerous customers?

As country manager for ServisHero.com Singapore, I was well versed in running a platform for thousands of service providers. It dawned on me, however, that there was no better way to experience a day in the life of our "Heroes" than to step into their shoes and become a "Hero" myself.

My first toilet-cleaning dry run with Isabell was harder than I thought it would be.

The skills that I had picked up in junior college and university were more academic than practical in nature.

My four years of higher education in Britain had been spent scrutinising philosophical arguments and abstract mathematical formulae. Not one class was dedicated to learning how to spin a mop or wipe glass windows. In fact, none of the academic theories I had learnt prepared me for what a typical home owner pays for when he or she asks for a cleaner - for their house to be transformed into a sparkling clean home.

I found myself needing constant guidance from Isabell on even the simplest of tasks (do I use Mr Muscle or an all-purpose spray before wiping the tiles clean, and what exactly is Clean Cham?). Many of the tips she offered me, such as using old newspapers to get rid of watermarks in the bathroom, were second nature to her but completely alien to me. I felt slightly ashamed when I thought about how much I took the cleanliness of my home and our streets in Singapore for granted. A good three hours later, Isabell declared the toilet clean.

"You are ready for a real cleaning job now," she said encouragingly, which made me beam.

Mr Thong (left) put his money where his mouth is and stepped into the shoes of the freelance cleaners like Ms Lee (right) who use his online platform to find work. PHOTO: DANIEL THONG, SERVISHERO SINGAPORE

On my first day of work, I found myself standing outside an HDB flat somewhere in Bedok, armed with a bag of cleaning equipment and feeling slightly nervous. I got my first job through the ServisHero PRO app, and found a client willing to try my cleaning services at $20 an hour.

In my haste, I forgot to take along my cleaning checklist. I had drawn up this checklist earlier, jotting down instructions on how exactly to clean a flat. It listed the sprays I should use for the kitchen, the correct liquids to use for the toilet, even how I planned to greet my customer.

I wanted to do an excellent job to get a repeat cleaning request, and so I quickly texted my colleague to send me a screenshot of the checklist from my desk back in the office. In the meantime, I told myself to keep calm.

The owner of the flat in Bedok was not home. His sister, who was obviously tasked with keeping an eye on the cleaner, answered the door. "You are here for cleaning, right?" She eyed me cursorily, "Okay, come in. You need to focus more on the kitchen and toilet. How long will you take and how do I pay you?"

I reached for my cleaning equipment to start work right away, applying the lessons Isabell had taught me to my first real cleaning job. I dusted and vacuumed the floor before mopping it, dutifully wiped the mirrors and glass surfaces clean and paid special attention to the kitchen and toilet.

Whenever I was in doubt, I thought back to my one and only "professional" cleaning experience - cleaning my bunk during my national service days. Back then, bunk cleaning was often used as incentive and punishment - if the room wasn't spotless, our sergeants would declare a "fail" and get us to clean it all over again. However, at that time, I did not think about cleaning in the way a professional cleaner would - for instance, what supplies to use, how to clean tiles and mirrors systematically and the importance of paying attention to detail. I just wanted to get the job done to a good enough standard to pass the inspection and get some much-needed sleep.

By the time I had systematically worked my way through every room in the flat, I was drenched in sweat (and no, the flat was not exceptionally dirty).

Thankfully, when I was done, the owner's sister was pleased enough and said she would use our service again. However, she did ask if we had female cleaners that could serve her regularly. It was then I realised the stigma our male cleaners continue to face, working in this industry - a third of the cleaners on our platform are men.

After a month as a freelance cleaner, I realised that cleaning can be a very lonely job. Freelance cleaners and part-time maids often operate alone, and even though the home owners are present, they may not wish to make conversation. In my subsequent engagements, one owner fired up his laptop and listened to music in a corner of the living room, while another was completely oblivious to my presence apart from a cursory "hi" and "thanks" at the start and end of the job.

I also encountered a number of demanding owners who insisted that I fulfil all their requirements in a short span of two hours. This was when I also felt the nagging fear that freelancers often face: of owners not making payment if they thought the quality of service delivered was not up to their standards.

The best part about being a cleaner? Having the owner see the "before" and "after" photos of my cleaning job, and taking him around the house for a spot check which I always hoped would impress. A simple "wow" from one owner glancing at his freshly scrubbed toilets instantly made all my hard work worth the effort.

As my two months as a cleaner drew to a close, I caught up with Isabell and relayed my cleaning experiences to her. I then asked her if she was proud of her freelance cleaning work. She told me she was.

Her family was supportive too, although, unfortunately, her relatives were not. With a half-smile, she recounted an experience during a barbecue gathering with her extended family. Isabell's children had showed their aunt her five-star rating on the app.

"So what?" the obnoxious auntie had retorted. "A cleaner is still just a cleaner."

Although Isabell had brushed the comment aside, I felt disappointed by our lack of empathy as a society towards certain professions. Cleaning is a profession just like any other, and what has become clear to me through this experience is this: Everyone has different circumstances in life and people are defined by more than just what they do for a living.

The wise philosophers of ancient Greece once said: "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." A full-time cleaner in Singapore now earns an average of $1,300 a month under the Progressive Wage Model. However, this also means that full-time cleaners are still one of the lowest-paid workers in Singapore, despite the hard work that they do to keep our homes and environment clean. Freelancing as an individual cleaner appears to be a better choice. I am proud of our platform's "Heroes" for ignoring their critics and taking on the risk of a less stable job - albeit one that provides a better hourly wage and work-life balance - in pursuit of their own happiness.

As my team and I continue our journey to build the first-of-its-kind services marketplace in South -east Asia, I hope we will never forget stories from people like Isabell and the many other heroes out there - we should always strive to empower service providers and give a voice to the working class.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 24, 2016, with the headline What I learnt from working as a cleaner for two months. Subscribe