Tuesday, 24 Nov 2020

He keeps estate clean, through Singapore's circuit breaker

SINGAPORE – April 26 was to be a day of rest. An initiative by the Public Hygiene Council, it was to be CleanSG day, when Singapore would go without cleaners nationwide to raise awareness of littering in estates.

But residents were mandated to stay home that day, and town council cleaners like Mr Shamol Sarker, 23, went to work as usual.

This was the result of the Covid-19 circuit breaker, when most of Singapore came to a standstill, and only a group of essential workers – those providing food, transport, health and social services – were allowed to go to work physically.

Mr Shamol was one – as a town council cleaner, he had to keep the lifts, common areas and void decks clean during the pandemic.

The amount of garbage thrown out by households increased significantly as more residents stayed at home. Mr Shamol said he had to make more trips to the bin than usual to clear them.

But the void decks were empty and there was not much to clean up there, he said. He misses the days when people gathered there, even it meant more work.

“My favourite part of my job is to do block sweep, where I sweep all the communal areas, because I get to say hi to people,” he said. “But during the circuit breaker, the void decks were empty.”

Having worked and lived in Boon Lay Drive for the past three years, Mr Shamol has never seen the estate this silent before. There were no moving cars or people in sight. “It was as if the whole Singapore was still asleep,” said the Bangladeshi cleaner.

When Singapore reported its first two Covid-19 deaths, his mother wanted him to return to Dhaka. But the borders had closed by then.

When he saw paramedics in personal protective equipment coming out of an ambulance near the block he cleans, the severity of the coronavirus situation here became clear to him.

“I told myself to stay far away from that block,” he said. His friends who read Bengali versions of local news updated him regularly on the Covid-19 situation in Singapore.

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Initially, he feared staying here would increase his chances of contracting the coronavirus. But in hindsight, he is thankful he did not leave.

“I get to work and earn money,” he said. “And Singapore is doing such a good job, I am not afraid anymore.”

In fact, Mr Shamol is worried about his family back home. “In Bangladesh, my family said everyone just walks around without masks, as if the coronavirus doesn’t exist.”

Now, Mr Shamol has to disinfect the lifts daily and clean the fitness corner every week, which he did not have to do before.

He shares a company-provided flat in Boon Lay Drive with five colleagues. Mr Shamol said they now take extra precautions when they return from work, such as changing out of their work clothes and washing them immediately. They have also doubled their house cleaning sessions.

And they stay in more. “Compared to our friends in the dormitories, we are free to go out but we don’t want to take the risk,” he said.

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Madam Li Ya Mun, 84, a resident and former cleaner, who gives out red packets to the town council cleaners during Chinese New Year, said in Mandarin: “They are all very hardworking. They are doing a great job.”

Many cleaning companies apply for a term contract for cleaning works with the town council, and this lasts for three years.

But because of the highly competitive nature of the industry, it is not guaranteed that Mr Shamol’s company will obtain the contract this time round.

Coming to the end of his third year here, Mr Shamol is anxiously waiting for February 2021 to see if his work permit, which expires in March, can be renewed for another three years.

“If I can, I want to convert to stay in Singapore forever, and travel around the world,” he said. “But it’s not easy for Bangladeshis like me.”

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