The sole breadwinner in her family, Mdm Ainiah Mahmot has been working as a cleaner for 14 years. Though initially reluctant to accept this job, she found herself starting in a supervisory role, and proved such a quick learner and diligent worker that she was promoted to being a senior supervisor within three months of joining the company.
Mdm Ainiah, who's with Sun City Maintenance, is the cleaning supervisor for PSA Building and Alexandra Retail Centre. In her role, she not only works with 17 cleaners, but she has also been getting help from "her baby", a robot cleaner called Ella, since November 2019. A creation of Singapore-based robotics company LionsBot, which produces cleaning robots of various functions, Ella is a LionScrub, designed to scrub large floor areas faster, using 70 per cent less water than a human cleaner. "The reason why we bring in robots is not to take over our job," she explained. "It does its job so we can use the human manpower hours to do other work that the robot cannot."
Such time and labour-saving solutions are what the Alliances for Action (AfAs) are exploring, an initiative under Singapore's Emerging Stronger Taskforce (EST). To accelerate the adoption of robotics solutions in industries such as transport and cleaning, and drive industry transformation, is what the Robotics AfA is focusing on. This AfA is a collaboration between the Government and businesses that work together to quickly develop, prototype, and execute pilot projects, through the participation of technologists like LionsBot, as well as service providers and end clients.
Today, Mdm Ainiah sees her job very differently from when she started out in the cleaning industry, particularly since Covid-19 struck last year. "You have to respect us in the cleaning industry because we are also front-liners," she pointed out, adding that cleaners fulfil an important role that other people cannot.
Overcoming initial fears
"Cleaning is an essential service - a very essential service," said Mdm Ainiah.
Being a cleaner may not be high on the list of sought-after jobs in Singapore, but it is an important job and one that must be performed well. The arrival of Covid-19 has made this a necessity.
"When Covid-19 started, we were called on to do more sanitising," Mdm Ainiah said. "At the time, I was working at HarbourFront, and after a while I was asked to handle PSA Building, to cover for my Malaysian supervisor." On March 18, 2020, the Malaysian government instituted border restrictions preventing travel between Singapore and Malaysia to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Working at HarbourFront posed a degree of risk. "Sometimes, the clinics at HarbourFront would have a suspected Covid-19 case, so we get called to be on standby to clean. We had to don the personal protective equipment (PPE) suit, which is very hot, before we go and clean the clinic area," shared Mdm Ainiah.
"At that time, we were all very scared to get the virus, because we didn't even know how it was being transmitted. So, it was important to know how to put on the suit properly, and then cleaning everything, not missing a spot," she said, adding, "It was very worrying, because I was going back to my children, and, at that time, my grandson had just been born. So I was worried if I would bring anything home on my shirt or on our hair or something."
The pandemic meant more efforts spent on cleaning, and having to be on the alert at all times. On top of that, manpower had to be reduced because only the bare minimum number of workers were allowed. "So we also had to multitask," she added.
The daily job of a cleaner is daunting - there are large areas of flooring that require mopping, glass windows that need cleaning, handles and buttons that have to be sanitised, and toilets that need scrubbing. Although Mdm Ainiah is a supervisor, she has to pitch in when manpower is short.
Having Ella the LionScrub to lend a hand in floor scrubbing has helped free up the time for the cleaning staff to focus on tasks which the robots cannot perform, such as cleaning glass panes, scrubbing toilets and disinfecting high touch points.
Entering the cleaning industry
Mdm Ainiah, 40, is a mother of five children aged between 21 and 12. She is also the grandmother of a one-year-old baby boy, her daughter's son. Her entrance into the cleaning industry was by way of the Community Development Council (CDC) overseeing the estate where she lives.
"Around 2007 or 2008, I was not working but I had to due to financial difficulty, so I sought help from the CDC," she said. "They offered me a cleaning supervisor job, and I was posted out to Changi Airport first. I've been with a few cleaning companies, but I've been with (my current employer) Sun City for about five and a half years."
It wasn't an easy decision to make, as Mdm Ainiah initially resisted entering this industry. "At first, I was shy, because you know, I would have to do toilet cleaning, that kind of thing," she admitted. "You have the impression you can't get anywhere in this job."
Though she wasn't sure of the job, she was offered a leadership role from the outset. "I sort of went straight to being a supervisor, with zero knowledge, with zero experience," she says. "I picked up skills as I went along. I learned from my cleaners, I learned from my fellow colleagues, and my seniors."
Mdm Ainiah was such a persistent worker and quick learner that "three months into the job, I got promoted to become a senior supervisor". She said, "This meant I had to handle coordination, do deployment of cleaners - I had to learn really fast."
Working with a robot
Mdm Ainiah first encountered cleaning robots two years ago, when she was supervising cleaning at HarbourFront. She was tasked with learning about and using the technology in view of deploying robot cleaners alongside human ones. "So we began with a few of the (robotic cleaner) vendors that my manager brought to HarbourFront. We started with a big machine and now we currently use Ella, a cute LionScrub (at Alexandra Retail Centre), which is quite small."
Ella is controlled by an app downloaded on to Mdm Ainiah's mobile phone. She can then control Ella's movements, and receive alerts when the robot needs attention.
To her surprise, she found herself immersed in learning about the technology and being trained to operate the robot. Mdm Ainiah tested out the technology, provided feedback on how the robot failed to accomplish a task, and worked closely with the technicians on making changes to improve Ella's performance.
"We have to highlight issues like whether the robot can do the work or not," she explained. "I am still at the learning stage but I'm very confident of why something goes wrong. For example, why the robot lands up somewhere else and the reasons why the robot falls."
She points out working with the robot is not frustrating. "It's the humans that are frustrating," she shared with a laugh. When Ella was introduced two years ago, the public was enamoured of its novelty. Mdm Ainiah said, "Some grownups purposely stand in front of the robot to see if it will stop. Some children run after the robots, but the parents don't do anything. Once, my app went off and when I went to check on the robot, someone had tilted its head to one side!"
She has since learned so much that she can tell you that the robot may not work properly if it fails to detect a blockage or something opaque near it, or if there is too much glass reflecting sunlight in a particular spot. Or it may stop working if it loses network reception.
"I bring up a lot of feedback, and sometimes when the robot doesn't work, I suggest a reason. When they finally locate the problem, they say 'Oh ya, what you say is correct'," she said, brimming with confidence. "We have to understand each other's reasoning and find the cause of the problems, then we can make it better."
A job to be proud of
Mdm Ainiah helps look after her grandson, coordinating her schedule with her daughter's. She is married but lives separately from her husband, as he has to care for his aged parents in their home.
She admits that her job is very tiring, and would like a less taxing job in the future. But while she can work and bring value to her job, she is proud and happy to continue. Her pride in her job has rubbed off on her children, who respect their mother and her work.
Mdm Ainiah said she used to dread chancing upon people she knew while working. "But now, I don't even care if I bump into friends - I have to stand up for my job. It's not the worst job in the world. I tell myself and my children, 'Never look down on yourself becoming a cleaner or anything like that. Instead, think highly of yourself, because when we are not around, things get dirty, things get smelly. But because of us, things get clean, things get nice. And people appreciate our hard work.'"
This is the fourth in a six-part series on the resilience of Singaporeans, as they band together to seize new opportunities in a world changed by Covid-19.
In partnership with the Emerging Stronger Taskforce.