By TWC2 volunteer Heidi M, based on an interview in August 2020
By now, it doesn’t take an economist to know that Covid-19 has been more destructive than past recessions on jobs. In response, the Singapore government has stepped out to help businesses and workers survive the pandemic. However, not all jobs can be saved.
Sithan Bharathi, a housekeeper at the Fairmont Singapore hotel, is one of the casualties.
Prior to the pandemic, Bharathi worked for a cleaning company offering hotel cleaning services in Singapore, He was assigned to Fairmont Hotel, a five-star landmark in Singapore’s civic district. As flights were grounded and borders closed, tourism dried up. Although a part of the Fairmont hotel has been temporarily converted to serve as a Stay-Home Designated Facility (SHDF) supporting returning Singaporeans, it has not been enough to keep Barathi in work.
To minimise any contact, we can assume the hotel guests under isolation would not enjoy daily cleaning of the room, in which case, housekeeping services became largely redundant.
Barathi was laid off in April 2020, and all he can do now is to wait for a flight back home. There, employment opportunities are probably just as scarce.
At this website, we often tell stories of construction workers. While construction workers are the most numerous of migrant workers in Singapore, foreigners are found in a great many other jobs too, some more visible because they interface Singaporean customers than others.
Hotel housekeeping is one of those invisible occupations we seldom hear about.
Bharathi has been in this line of work for four years. He would work in shifts and have nine hours to finish sixteen rooms each day. Every room may offer breathtaking views of the city, but he would have no time to admire the scenery as his task was to restore the spacious rooms to their luxurious state within 20 or 30 minutes.
“How long it takes depends on how many things the guest has used,” he explains in surprisingly good English.
Weekends tend to be very busy, with more people checking in and out, he adds. Some days, he’d be assigned more than 16 rooms, and he’d be paid an extra $5 for each additional room he looked after.
Five dollars. A quick check of Fairmont listings on websites indicates that this hotel charges about $300 a night or more.
Still, Bharathi didn’t find anything unpleasant in his job when asked. He especially didn’t mind vacuuming and changing the bed sheets. He was committed to complete all his tasks in accordance with the hotel’s high standard.
But all that is over, a sad fact which once again highlights the vulnerability of migrant workers who fill the low-wage, manual labour jobs that others avoid. When times are good, we are happy for the foreign workers to make our rooms shine, but when the economy is hit hard, it is easy to send those home whom we don’t immediately need.
In addition, many cleaning services businesses are worried that hotels will take the opportunity to rethink their Post-Covid-19 housekeeping operations. From traditionally employing a large number of people, the future may hold a different model.
I thank Barathi for sharing his experiences and opinions with me, and I wish him all the best and hope he’ll find an alternative source of income before too long.