Six days a week, 70-year-old Madam Chang works as a cleaner at a famous hawker centre located in Singapore’s bustling central business district.
Throughout the day, business is brisk, but hawkers are not the only ones who have to be quick at their craft.
Quietly and as rapidly as they can, cleaners like Madam Chang swoop in on vacated tables, clearing away used cutlery and trays so as to free up space for incoming diners.
The menial task of pushing a loaded trolley around the hawker centre is not easy for Madam Chang, who has held this job for three years.
Declining to reveal her full name, she told The Pride: “At my age, the body is not so strong anymore. My legs hurt because we stand around a lot and have to walk up and down to pick up the trays from the table. People also leave a big mess behind after they’re done.”
Madam Chang is not alone in contending with these old-age ailments as a cleaner. The job does not call for high qualifications, and the lower barrier to entry has seen senior citizens filling the ranks of cleaning staff at Singapore’s many food establishments.
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It can be an uncomfortable sight to witness – elderly folks taking on a physically demanding job to eke out a living in one of the richest nations in the world.
Little wonder then that a recent video by the Singapore Kindness Movement, which touched on the story of 67-year-old cleaner Tan Huan Ah, drew overwhelming support from Facebook users.
At Bukit Panjang Hawker Centre, where Madam Tan works, diners are encouraged to return their own trays to designated stations. Apart from making it easier for the next diner to use the tables, this also lightens the cleaners’ labour.
While some commentators were inspired and declared that they would take the initiative to clear their own trays, not everyone is throwing their weight behind the Tray Return Initiative.
In the video, Madam Tan observed: “Some people are unhappy because they feel that as paying customers, they shouldn’t need to return their trays. They think that if they do that, we cleaners will be out of jobs, so they’ll wait for us to clean up on their behalf.”
It is a concern that was echoed by several users in comments made on Facebook.
One said, “We can be kind enough to return the trays. You may think it’s helping to reduce their workload. But think further… once the management sees a reduction in workload, will they still require these cleaners to do the job?”
Recounting that some cleaners have expressed anger when she tried to return her tray, another user said, “(Madam Tan) may feel that her workload gets lighter, but her boss will eventually feel that fewer cleaners are necessary.”
While it seems a simple and logical case of supply and demand, do these assertions capture the nature of a cleaner’s work?
Not very much, according to Kopitiam’s corporate communications manager Vincent Cheong. The local F&B giant, which has more than 80 food and beverages outlets islandwide, supports the Tray Return Initiative by the National Environment Agency (NEA) started in 2013.
Cheong told The Pride that at Kopitiam, clearing trays is just one aspect of a cleaner’s duties. They also have to clear food waste from the trays and crockery at the tray return points, and deliver these items to the dishwashing areas before redistributing cleaned crockery and trays to the individual stalls.
On the impact of the Tray Return Initiative on their cleaners, Cheong said: “It helps to alleviate the workload of the cleaners and they can be redeployed to the tray return stations or dishwashing areas.”
Apart from lightening the cleaners’ workload, customers also stand to benefit as tables can be freed up more quickly for incoming diners. Speaking to The Pride, Linda Ming, director of brand communications and customer care at McDonald’s Singapore, noted that this is especially helpful during peak meal times when the demand for tables is high.
Would an act of graciousness from customers result in cleaners losing their livelihood?
Not at McDonald’s, where staff are trained and shuffled according to the needs onsite. Ming said: “In recent years, we’ve started seeing more customers return their trays to the tray return points in our restaurants. By doing so, it allows us to reallocate our resources in our restaurants – for example, moving our crew from the front of store to our kitchen for food preparation.”
Similarly, KFC’s senior marketing director Juliana Lim explained that the fast food chain’s staff do much more than just clear trays.
She told The Pride: “Our service crew help to clean and sanitise the tables, clear bins when they are full and ensure that the floor is dry and clean. They are cross-trained to handle kitchen work, and can be deployed back into the kitchen to help when they are less busy during off-peak hours.”
In response to queries if KFC has let go of any cleaning staff due to the Tray Return Initiative, Lim declared: “Definitely not.”
What about the sentiments of cleaners on the ground? Of the five hawker centre cleaners The Pride spoke to, all but one expressed confidence that the tray return campaign will not affect their livelihood.
While Madam Chang felt that the job of cleaners will eventually be phased out, especially with increasing automation, she agreed that there is more than enough for cleaners to do currently, that tray return alone is unlikely to make them redundant.
At a hawker centre located in Telok Ayer, 60-year-old cleaner Madam Lee observed that more customers are now returning their trays, and told The Pride that it is a gesture she appreciates.
“During peak hours, it gets very busy. Apart from clearing trays and cleaning tables, I find that the most strenuous part of the job is sorting and delivering cleaned cutlery to the individual stalls here.
“As most of us are in our 60s and 70s, it helps us work faster when people bring their trays to the return points, and I make it a point to thank them for it.”