By Qistina Hatta
When the pandemic hit Singapore in 2020, one of the first sectors of the economy to feel its brunt was the hospitality industry.
Almost overnight, overseas travellers slowed to a trickle, and hotels were left almost empty.
But just as quickly, a new need showed itself — overseas Singaporeans were coming home and facilities were needed for their 14-day quarantine period.
Similarly, those in Singapore suspected of being in contact with Covid patients had to serve Stay-Home Notices or live in quarantine facilities.
Migrant workers, who lived in dormitories before Covid, were particularly vulnerable to outbreaks due to the cramped conditions. Many of them were moved into hotels like Village Hotel Katong.
That was a challenge for housekeepers like Naazreen Begum. The 45-year-old runs a team of 9 housekeeping staff to clean and manage smooth hotel operations on a daily basis.
At the height of the pandemic, from April 2020, Village Hotel Katong provided more than 200 rooms for 30,000 suspected Covid-19 cases, primarily migrant workers who were not allowed back into their dormitories.
Some of them had to stay as long as four months in the hotel, confined indoors without any interaction with the outside world.
It was tough on the migrant workers, says Naazreen, and on the housekeeping staff as well.
She explains: “We were scared, but the training reassured us of our safety to battle the virus.”
With new quarantine protocols, their job scope changed from just keeping the rooms clean to to keep themselves and their guests safe.
For example, bed sheets are usually changed after guests leave, but to minimise contact, bedding was placed outside the rooms for the migrant workers to change the sheets themselves.
Even with the training, there were fears, especially at the height of the pandemic, says Naazreen.
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Working in a facility that served patients suspected to have Covid-19 wasn’t easy. Even with precautions, staff had concerns about getting sick or that the virus could spread to their loved ones when they went home after work.
“Many of my colleagues were from overseas and they just wanted to go home to their families during that time of uncertainty, but they couldn’t,” recalls Naazreen.
When the migrant workers first arrived at the hotel, recalled Naazreen, they weren’t used to formal settings. The hotel staff opened up their arms to their new guests and learnt to cater to their specific needs — like changing the menu to suit their diet (basmati rice instead of white rice) and other preferences.
Over time, since they stayed longer than normal guests, the staff also got to know them better.
Being isolated in their rooms, many migrant workers would open their doors to talk to their friends from across the corridors. They were restless, scared and lonely.
They just wanted to talk to somebody in person, but it was against the rules. For their safety, Naazreen and her team often had to remind them, sometimes sternly.
Nevertheless, even though they couldn’t spend time with each other physically, the staff and workers became friends. One of Naazreen’s regrets is that she and the housekeeping staff couldn’t take photos together with the workers because of safe-distancing concerns.
There were also issues trying to teach the workers how to use appliances like microwave ovens in their rooms. Staff weren’t allowed to go into their rooms and found it difficult to teach without demonstrating the steps in person. To solve this: Staff came up with the idea to produce videos on how to use different appliances.
It’s almost like having a friend stay with you, explains Naazreen. They had different tastes and habits, but they were scared and lonely too. And your heart goes out to them, she says.
“They’re just like normal people, like you and me. They were scared and separated from each other; feeling the same as us,” says Naazreen.
Staycations and challenges
The next big change came in December 2021, when travel restrictions eased and the hotel opened to guests again.
It was a new “new normal”.
It was a surreal experience seeing guests arriving for staycations or work trips again, says Naazreen.
Housekeeping went back to “normal” operations, with Naazreen and her housekeepers swapping gloves twice for every room clean; before changing the sheets and after.
It wasn’t just adapting to new work conditions, though.
“It was weird,” says Naazreen, “to switch back from being informal with the migrant workers to being calling guests ‘sir’ and ‘madam’ instead of by their names!”
An extended family
In a large hotel like Village Hotel Katong, staff from different departments seldom work together, let alone have a chance to befriend one another.
But during their time as a quarantine facility, the banquet staff joined the housekeeping team since there wasn’t much need for dining-in personnel.
Naazreen found it heartening to see staff from the different departments bond over work, close enough to talk about personal and family stuff, she says.
It was a comfort during a period that they needed support, and they were there for each other.
During a turbulent time for Singapore and the world, it was crucial for the hotel industry to keep their heads up and prepare for whatever else came their way. They had to stay strong to house migrant workers or even Covid-19 patients — being among the frontliners who were at risk of being in direct contact with the virus.
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Yet they persevered. It’s important to recognise the hard work and sacrifice they’ve done for themselves and their families.
As Naazreen says: “We all came to work together despite our different backgrounds, but we did what we had to do to adapt and fight the virus.”