Amidst the blasting of the latest pop songs through the school speakers and the flurry of activity all around the Anderson Junior College grounds because of their annual open house, I sat in a quiet corner with two elderly aunties whom are cleaners at the junior college to have a casual chit chat on their recent wage increase. In case you havent heard, 3,600 school cleaners were set to get wage increases of up to $300 so that their salary reached a minimum of $1,000. This was initiated by the Tripartite Cluster for Cleaners where the Labour Movement worked with industry partners to improve the skills, wages, productivity and career ladder in the sector for these low wage workers.
Madam Ng, a bespectacled auntie who was incredibly jovial and talkative and Madam Ong, a softspoken and demure lady were the cleaners whom I had the pleasure of speaking to. Madam Ng started off the conversation telling me about her family situation – where all three generations including three gandchildren, her son and daughter-in-law, her husband and herself squeeze into a 5-room flat. With her three grandchildren still studying and not yet earning any income, her aged husband and herself feel the burden to supplement the income that her son and daughter-in-law earn so as to support her grandchildren. “What to do” she joked in dialect, “everything also need money.”
Because of their age (Madam Ng being 70 and her husband being 75), Madam Ng and her husband have also raked up a myriad of medical bills. Despite her financial situation, Madam Ng’s cheerful disposition was infectious. When asked her reaction to the wage increase, she beamed and said she was extremely happy! She said that she can now afford to have $3 meals – a treat compared to the usual $2 meals that she allows herself or the daily breakfast routine consisting two slices of bread and a cup of coffee. Additional money from the $300 increase will also go towards paying for utility bills and groceries for the family – where previously, she would only buy the most basic of foodstuffs.
Madam Ong’s story isn’t much different. At the age where most women would be grandmothers and retirees, Madam Ong not only works to pay for household expenses but was also looking to find a second job to supplement her income before the wage increase was annouced. She spoke in Mandarin that the increase impacted her greatly because she would now be spared the arduous task of taking on another job – when her current job as a cleaner already requires a lot of time and effort. As I looked at the frail and elderly Madam Ong while she related her story, I wondered if it was even possible for Madam Ong’s body to endure the physical and mental demands of two jobs and was relieved at how timely the increase was for her.
At the end of the chit chat, I asked if we could arrange for a day where we could give a treat to both Madam Ong, Madam Ng and their fellow cleaners just as a way to say thank you for all their hard work. After excitedly agreeing and saying our goodbyes, they left to continue their work, I was impressed at how much pride they took in their work – Madam Ong chiming in that cleaning the front porch of the school is of utmost importance because to her it’s “the face” of the school and is the “first impression” someone would have of the school. I stood amazed at their tenacity and cheerfulness despite their financial circumstances and their ability to enjoy the simple things in life. Hence, it is my hope that the story of how their lives have changed for the better because of the wage increase will help to raise awareness of the efforts to help low wage workers and I hope this leaves you feeling blessed about all the things in life you might have taken for granted.