Harsh chemicals, long hours for elderly man cleaning 3 Singapore buildings every day

Lee Teng Kan, 67, chats with Coconuts Singapore via a video call from a stairwell in one of the Woodlands buildings he cleans.
Lee Teng Kan, 67, chats with Coconuts Singapore via a video call from a stairwell in one of the Woodlands buildings he cleans.

Since the spread of COVID-19 in Singapore, the city-state’s cleaners have been deployed to disinfect everything from the airport to shopping malls, all in addition to their regular work. 

For janitor Lee Teng Kan, 67, that has meant scrubbing down industrial buildings in Woodlands. On top of washing areas such as toilets with detergent, he has to make additional rounds to disinfect surfaces that in the past were not a major concern. 

Lee speaks Mandarin and talked to Coconuts Singapore with the help of a company translator.

“He said that it has been tiring. He starts earlier at 7am instead of 8am … and needs to wear masks all the time and wear extra gloves for safety,” a representative for Getz Cleanz, the company that hired Lee, said during a video call with Lee as he sat in a stairwell during his lunch break. 

Lee said he’s had to work more hours to finish the additional disinfecting work. At times, he has delayed lunch breaks or split them into shorter breaks. He strives to clock out at 5pm each day. 

Lee broke down the details of what it takes to keep a place clean, the kind of invisible work repeated many times over citywide to keep its people safe.

Wearing masks and two sets of gloves, he explained that he goes around applying disinfectant before waiting for the chemicals to absorb and making another round to wipe things down. 

Areas that may be frequently touched by people, also known as “high-touch” points, require special attention.

Lee said he must “wait for a few minutes before he can wipe them down again” and described the chemicals used as “strong-smelling.”

If that doesn’t sound impressive, consider the amount of work that Lee does. He must clean and disinfect three multi-story buildings every day, five and a half days a week. Unlike the typical home cleaning job, he must pay additional attention to spots like staircase railings and power sockets. On top of that, he also cleans the buildings’ washrooms. 

Lee works with a team of five others, all around the same age, who share the workload.

Neither Lee nor Getz Cleanz, the cleaning company, would reveal the buildings he cleans. Google Maps shows a number of multi-story buildings sprawled across the Woodlands Industrial Park and occupied by companies in construction and semiconductors, among others.

Image: Google
Image: Google

Putting the ‘tidy’ in Singapore

According to the National Environment Agency, there are at least 104 cleaning companies that provide disinfection services in Singapore, the three-year-old Getz Cleanz company being one of them. That is a fraction of the more than 1,300 licensed cleaning companies currently listed.

The agency also lists nine suitable active ingredients as “effective against the coronavirus.” They include Benzalkonium chloride and accelerated hydrogen peroxide.

Lee has been a cleaner for roughly five years now but has never had to disinfect as much as he has in the past few months since the coronavirus outbreak hit Singapore. The country has since reported more than 30,000 COVID-19 cases. 

For a country reputed for its cleanliness, the seemingly widespread disinfection happening across Singapore may have upped our collective obsession with cleanliness as well. 

Lee said that once he’s home, he will “quickly wash hands and go straight into the shower.” Lee said he goes home to his wife each day at their rented apartment.  

Like in many other essential industries, the custodial sector could see a lot done to increase wages. 

Getz Cleanz said it pays its 50 workers between S$1,400 (about US$1,000) and S$1,700 per month. Nearly half of its workforce is 65 or older. 

But Lee, who said he has accumulated years of experience doing laborious work, said he has no plans for retirement — at least for now. Prior to being a cleaner, he fixed carpets in airplanes such as those flown by JetStar and Qantas. Before that, he did tiling work for renovation projects.

Lee said that his two children have said he should consider retiring. But considering the gloomy economy now ravaged by COVID-19, it seems like sticking to his job is the wisest thing to do. 

Other stories to check out:

‘Take a good hard look at our own racism’: Man spotlights comments on migrant workers
Singapore to pilot new migrant worker dorms with a little more space
Singapore freighter probed after face masks, other goods wash ashore near Sydney


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