SINGAPORE - Despite a physical disability which causes a constant pain and weakness in his arms, Mr Ravi Rajasagaran worked his way up in the back-breaking cleaning industry - from being a cleaner to supervising dozens of others.
For his hard work, resilience and motivation to learn, Mr Ravi was one of 27 workers in the environmental services industry who received the Environmental Services (ES) Star Awards from the National Environment Agency (NEA) on Wednesday (Dec 23).
Mr Ravi, who had been in and out of prison 14 times until 2014, said it is his biggest achievement to date.
"In my past life, I would never have expected to achieve this. I've achieved a lot in this line... My (need to upgrade) is never-ending.
"My dream is to be an NEA environment control officer," said the 38-year-old.
He started as a cleaner in 2018 but over a two-year period, took nine Workforce Skills Qualifications courses and now oversees 50 to 80 cleaners as an operation manager in Clear3 Environment.
When manpower is short, he helps with the duties although the labour takes a toll on his body.
"I get tired very fast, so I need to rest for 10 minutes and drink water after every hour of work.
"I hang heavy garbage bags on my upper arm if I cannot lift them using my hands," said Mr Ravi.
He was diagnosed in 2013 with Hirayama disease, a rare neurological disease affecting the spinal cord. It causes muscle wasting and weakness in the forearms and hands.
As a result, he can now carry only a 4kg load in his right hand and 2kg in his left hand, which has three fingers that are still mobile.
Due to his disability, he struggled to land a permanent job until Clear3 Environment hired him two years ago.
The annual awards, which started last year, recognises the industry's most exemplary employees across the cleaning services, waste management, and pest management sectors.
The awards is part of Environmental Services Workforce Day, NEA's annual event which celebrates the commitment and excellence of the industry's companies and employees.
Another 350 workers from 58 companies were given congratulatory certificates to recognise their contribution and commitment to the industry.
The workers include those who have been promoted or have been commended for their long service.
The ES Star Awards recipients received $100 worth of vouchers, while the 350 employees received $50 in vouchers.
Minister for Sustainability and the Environment Grace Fu, who was the guest of honour at the awards ceremony, acknowledged that many companies and workers in the environmental services industry had to cope with additional demands for cleaning and disinfection services this year.
There was also increased waste in residential areas due to the pandemic.
"Despite these challenging circumstances, our frontline environmental services heroes stepped up to the challenge and continued to keep our environment clean and maintain high standards of public hygiene," said Ms Fu.
She noted that beyond Covid-19, demand for quality and responsive environmental services will remain high to maintain public health and hygiene.
Starting mid-2021, mandatory cleaning standards and environmental sanitation programmes must be implemented in high-risk places such as eldercare facilities and pre-schools.
This is part of the Environmental Public Health (Amendment) Bill, which was passed in Parliament in October.
The Bill will help to strengthen the country's resilience against the current pandemic and dengue outbreak, as well as future public health threats.
NEA had previously said that the environmental services industry is currently facing manpower shortage for core occupations, such as general cleaners, waste collection attendants and pest control workers.
In her speech on Wednesday, Ms Fu said the industry needs to leverage technology and employ a skilled workforce.
Other ES Star Awards recipients include Mr Azlam Shah Alias, 41, founder of AZantz Services, and Ms Quek Rui Ting, 29, an entomologist at Ikari Services.
Both companies specialise in pest control.
Mr Azlam, who entered the pest control scene 15 years ago as a worker hunting mosquitoes and controlling dengue clusters, started his own company of 14 staff last year.
He believes there are opportunities to grow in the environmental services industry, and plans to send his staff for bird and reptile management courses.
A life sciences graduate, Ms Quek took the road less travelled by working with roaches and rodents.
She designs pest management programmes for clients and trains pest control technicians.