Singapore's long march to professional cleaning

20th of September 2017
Singapore's long march to professional cleaning
Singapore's long march to professional cleaning

In Singapore, streets and public spaces are remarkably clean. The government reached this level of cleanliness due to some draconian anti-littering laws. While the Singaporean cleaning industry has contributed to this spotless state of the streets, some argue the cleaning industry deserves more appreciation – both in terms of salary, as well as from the general public.  Correspondent Bobbie van der List reports for ECJ.

Walking through the streets of Singapore is quite a refreshing experience if you are used to some of bigger Southeast Asian cities, as none of them are as clean as Singapore. This can largely be attributed to the strict policy towards littering in public spaces. It all started when the prime minister of Singapore in the 1960s, Lee Kuan Yew, introduced strict anti-litter laws. These are still in place today.

If you do drop litter you can be fined up to 1,000 Singapore dollars (S$), which is roughly €623. This is for a first conviction; repeating this ‘crime’ can be an expensive exercise: it will cost you S$5,000 (€3,115). In addition to financial penalties, you can be forced to follow anti-littering classes, introduced by the government hoping to educate people and prevent them from littering in the future.

The revolving door litterer, who commits the offense for the third time, can be made to wear a signal which reads ‘I am a litter lout’. The penalties can be radical. For example, throwing away chewing gum anywhere other than a rubbish bin will be met with S$100 (€62) fine, or forgetting to flush a toilet can cost the same amount.

The number of tickets handed out last year was the highest in seven years. In total, the National Environment Agency (NEA) handed out 31,000 tickets in 2016, one-third of the offenders were non-Singaporean. According to a report by the Straits Times most of the littering happens in areas around metro stations and shopping malls. The reason why littering cases increased by 19 per cent in 2016 compared to the year before can be explained by the tougher stance the government is taking towards litterers.

The NEA installed surveillance cameras in certain areas where littering is a big problem. According to the government, there should be made more efforts to “develop stronger community ownership for a clean environment”.

Whether installing cameras is the way to go is questionable, especially considering privacy considerations. According to Milton Ng, president of the Environmental Management Association Singapore, these strict anti-littering laws do nurture people’s behaviour. “Generally, society is shaped by the law. Even though we have strict laws governing littering, a small percentage of the population still litters. In every society you will find recalcitrant people.”

Despite the positive outcome of these laws on people’s attitudes, in the long run it could have more negative implications for the general opinion about keeping the streets clean. At least that is the opinion of Milton Ng: “We have set a high standard for public cleaning in the last 50 years since independence. Having an efficient government has also not helped us.

"The government tenders out public cleaning and penalises companies for not cleaning up fast enough. So the public is spoiled and complains that public areas are not cleaned up fast enough. We are not clean but cleaned. Strict policies in some instances do help but if the cleaners are doing such a good job, does it mean our society is gracious enough to clean up after themselves?”

Even though it might have led to a decrease in rubbish being thrown on the streets, some say this might not be the most effective way to force people to think about cleaning. Milton Ng uses Japan as an example, where cleaning is an important part of the educational curriculum. “We used to have a similar attitude and students cleaned their classrooms, but in our chase for educational excellence this has evaporated. Only recently has there been a re-emergence of the idea that cleaning should be part of one’s school experience,” he explains.

Indeed, with the announcement back in 2016 to reintroduce schoolroom cleaning the Ministry of Education kept its word and passed a law later that year. According to the ministry however, all schools – from primary schools to junior colleges – have autonomy in the implementation of daily cleaning. They are expected to clean classrooms and corridors - toilets are excluded. This is comparable to how Japan and Taiwan involve children in the cleaning process at school. (Maybe you can refer back to my previous article in the February/March 2017 edition of ECJ about how Japanese children clean their classrooms).

While the streets seem clean, Milton Ng believes the job is not quite done yet. He points at the underappreciated status of the cleaning industry and negative attitudes of citizens toward the sector. “The environmental industry is not considered to be a sexy industry, parents warn their children that if they do not study hard enough, they will end up as a cleaner or rubbish collector. So already at a young age, the child is instilled to think that cleaning is a low-end job”

A few steps need to be taken he believes, to professionalise the cleaning industry, which should have a positive impact both on people’s perception of the it, as well as the socio economic position workers have in society. One of the issues is payment or lack thereof. “The salary of environmental hygiene workers is in the bottom 20 percentiles of the Singapore economy,” continues Ng. “Only as recently as 2014 the government introduced the Progressive Wage.”

This Progressive Wage Model (PWM) for the cleaning industry was developed by the Tripartite Cluster for Cleaners (TCC). “In the past eight years we have made a concerted effort to bring together the government, industry and the trade union to set the roadmap to professionalise the industry. Without government intervention policies cannot be instituted to regulate salary progression. As such, tripartite endorsement is essential for the professionalisation journey.”

In practice the PWM meant that cleaning companies now must meet certain requirement to obtain or renew their licenses. “Previously this was not necessary so it’s a step in the right direction,” comments Ng. The PWM requirements cover all Singaporeans and Singapore permanent residents employed in outsourced cleaning jobs. It has proven to bring about an improvement in the salaries of cleaners in Singapore.

They are roughly divided into three categories: office & commercial, F&BN establishment, and conservancy. Within these categories, supervisors need to be paid at least S$1,600 (€997) whereas multi-skilled cleaners and machine operators earn at least, S$1,400 (€872). Dishwashers and refuse collectors are paid S$1,200 (€748), as are outdoor cleaners and hospital cleaners. Finally, general cleaners are paid S$1,000 (€623) as a minimum.

Although these rules are not yet mandatory employers are in fact encouraged to apply these standards to the wage structure of non-Singaporean workers as well.

It is what Milton Ng and other like-minded sector stakeholders who want to change attitudes towards the cleaning industry, call their “march” towards fully professionalising the cleaning business. “Without due recognition through a better wage and training, it is difficult to attract people into the industry. We even have problems getting educated supervisor and managers as salaries are not attractive.”

But wage requirements are not the only pillar of this so-called “march”, there is a lot to be done in training cleaners as well, and providing them with legitimate credentials. Ng explains: ‘We need to establish a recognised diploma programme for supervisors and managers. In that way the entire spectrum of skills is established. Rank and file workers can grow to become managers through this modular system. With better training it is also easier to justify a higher salary to the service buyers.”

Meanwhile the Singaporean cleaning industry tries to come together with other counterparts in Southeast Asia and beyond to further exchange knowledge and expertise. “Our association has signed a global memorandum of understanding with five other cleaning associations from Indonesia, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Russia and South Africa,” Ng explains. “This memorandum allows sharing of best practices and collaboration. Recently Jakarta, Malaysia, and Indonesia showed interest in our training programs and we hope that we can standardise training within ASEAN.”

Yet like many countries in Europe and Asia, Singapore is struggling with a ageing workforce. This is particularly true in the cleaning sector. Says Ng: “The biggest challenge is the ageing workforce deployed in this industry. Seventy per cent of the workforce is over 55 years old. The government is tightening regulations on foreign workers coming into this industry. The real question is: how can the industry be productive with a workforce that is getting older?”

Numbers: the cleaning industry in Singapore is relatively large in comparison to the number of inhabitants - with about 1,200 cleaning companies the workforce totals 58,000 cleaners. General cleaning makes up for most the cleaning workforce.


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