What’s it like to be a cleaner in Singapore?

(This article has been submitted by Ms N, writer, 33)

“This is my livelihood, and I am proud of it.”

At first look, he may spot a stern look. Mr Anbalakan s/o Arunachalam, 53, a conservancy cleaner who takes care of the verandas and surroundings along several HDB blocks in Ang Mo Kio is a quiet persona.

Try striking up a conversation with Mr Anbalakan when he is on his usual breaks, and you will see the ‘friendly uncle’ in him breaking into a smile.  Donned in a sparkling white uniform, and sometimes in safety boots, the worker employed by Ban Chuan Trading and Engineering Private Limited turns up to work each new day at 8am in his brightest spirits.

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He may be well doing a job that not many, if not for anyone, acknowledging him, as they buzz by with their day’s activities. But Mr Anbalakan does not mind on this a bit. “I am doing this because it is my livelihood; and this is the job that feeds my family,” he says with a beam on his face.

He lives with his wife within walking distance from the block of flats that are under ‘his charge’ in the estate. And says he enjoys the convenience as he can stroll back home for lunches.

As A Cleaner…

Mr Anbalakan called it a day on his previous ad-hob jobs’ mode; and decided to get into the cleaning sector. The times he had spent in school are barely memorable. And former job experiences did not really count. That’s when he found some hope in being a cleaner. His first pay packet some six years was worth $900.

He is willing to learn; till today, and jumps at the opportunities that his employer opens up for its workers. With better training gradually, Mr Anbalakan also enjoyed a bigger pay packet. The $900 was adjusted upwards to $1,100, which became $1,200.

“As much as I can, I learn. I learnt how to operate machines, and every time my employer brings in a new machine, I never shun away from it,” he says.


NTUC’s Assistant Secretary-General and Member of Parliament, Mr Zainal Sapari has been championing for low-wage workers. And one of these collective efforts to improve the lives of low-wage workers includes the Progressive Wage Model, PWM, in short.

This model gave the first lift of career, wages, skills and productivity for the cleaners in 2012. This was breakthrough after the wages of these cleaners have stagnated for many years. Workers like Mr Anbalakan who pick up the skills to operate machinery to carry out their work can earn $1,400 or more. Mr Anbalakan earns $1,700 now. His latest training records show learning the ropes of operating a 3-in-1 auto scrubber.

Has he ever feared machines? That they will replace his job? No, he says, “Isn’t it better that you know the machine so well that you manage the machine, and not the other way round?”

In A Day’s Work

Mr Anbalakan is rostered duties to ensure that the 12 blocks under his care are well-maintained. He operates machines to clean dry litter and at other times, uses the high-pressure water jet to wash the areas covered by these blocks.

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With machinery, there is less manpower needed for the same tasks he did before, he says. For the same plot of area, now, just one worker is needed to carry out the job. Before, there were two workers deployed.

“This is better, of course. The other workers here and I can do different roles. I am very excited to learn new on operating new machinery and take on new job scopes.”

Mr Anbalakan has been diligent in his work and his bosses have noticed his efforts. “They keep encouraging me very often, and I am working hard to take on higher responsibilities in the future.”

He adds: “My wife is also contributing what she can to the family income as a factory worker. In fact, I want to do better in my job, and try and get more pay, so that we can travel together some day.”

Appreciation, Anyone?

The residential setting is a place that greets people from all walks of life. How does he feel working as a cleaner in such a place?

There are good days and the not-so-good days. To some, he may be just a cleaner at work, but he takes it upon himself to carry out his role to the best on every work day.

Mostly senior citizens who walk past him greet him like greet an old friend. That’s also because Mr Anbalakan is usually the one who helps elderly folks in carrying their grocery bags till they reach the lifts.

But the young lads in the neighbourhood took a longer time to warm up to him. “Some youths out there still may not see our jobs as so important,” he says with a grin,” but they all will eventually understand, I hope.”







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