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Automated machines will uplift the cleaning profession

Indu Vijaykumar, Director, i-team India

The real status of women in housekeeping. Attracting young talent back to the profession. How the traditional mop-bucket system is holding the FM industry back. Without mincing words, Indu Vijaykumar, Director, i-team India dissects the critical issues facing the cleaning community today.

How has the state and status of housekeeping workers in India evolved in the recent past?

The last few years have been the golden age for sanitation in India. The post-Covid era has brought sharp focus to the importance of cleaning, and to the fact that it is now recognised as a skilled job.

Sanitation and cleaning gained attention in the 1990s with the Total Sanitation Campaign which morphed into the Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan, and then grew into Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. This translated directly into increased budgets and mission-mode implementation across the country.

Media and movies have made sanitation a household subject and helped it cross over to the mainstream. This has brought focus on its financing and participation by the private sector, followed by inclusion of cleaning under CSR activities, with several prominent companies announcing large initiatives and several banks committing to financing cleaning drives.

Women form a large part of the housekeeping workforce, and do the same work as men. Are they treated at par with them?

Gender mainstreaming is the one of the primary objectives of international labour standards in order to ensure equal wages. However, women continue to be paid less wages than men in most labour-related work, including housekeeping and cleaning jobs.

Women workers often encounter de facto disadvantages. Government reports are submitted to the International Labour Organisation, which provides the framework for equal wages. However, this is scarcely followed, and women continue to be paid lower wages. They also lack the support and awareness to demand equal pay.

Automating cleaning procedures can change this fact dramatically. The person who operates a cleaning machine is an operator; skill determines an operator’s wages, not gender.

Why does the traditional bucket-mop-cloth system of cleaning need to be replaced?

In pursuing their aims of maintaining cleanliness and sanitation, service providers create ‘Double Trouble’ . Firstly, their operations inevitably create waste, especially with the overuse of chemicals that may be hazardous to human health and the ecosystem. Secondly, the exposure of cleaning staff to hazardous and harmful residues and infectious elements favours long-term occupational diseases.

They need to adhere to established protocols like OSHA standards to minimise the hazards associated with cleaning. The waste produced during the sanitation procedures, especially in healthcare facilities in the wake of the pandemic, can create potential risks to public health. This waste needs to be disposed of in a safe and reliable way.

Therefore, the traditional mop-and-bucket system of cleaning is redundant and needs to be replaced by modern methods which create sanitation and cleanliness in an ecologically safe way for human aesthetics and safety, while protecting the staff involved.

How can cleaning equipment manufacturers help bring respectability to this already noble profession?

Traditionally, the cleaning profession in India has been linked to social systems, and not accorded respect, but the scenario is rapidly changing. Cleaning equipment manufacturers keep improving the technology used to ease manual effort and make it more efficient.

Driven by modernisation and urban development, facility management services in India have been expanding at a rapid pace. This growth is directly linked to the social upliftment of millions of workers. There are benefits to those unemployed, who can be employed with formal work contracts. Along with hiring more personnel, industry stakeholders also recognise the need to skill and upskill more and more existing workers.

Since commercial cleaning has a significant share in outsourced facility management, equipment usage and skilling are major changemakers in the lives of cleaning professionals and bring much-needed respect. The knowledge of machine usage will elevate the status of the cleaner to an operator and add value to his or her life. This will create a pipeline of industry talent and role models in the long run.

Facility management companies often find it difficult to attract young talent. How can the choice of cleaning equipment alter this?

The primary cause of this is the lack of awareness of the potential of facility management services as an essential service. With automation and inclusion of AI to perform repetitive chores, interest can be revived and passion for this profession can be reignited. The availability of the latest cleaning equipment and access to the skilling required to operate it can positively influence the career choices of young talent.

What are the major innovations that caused tectonic shifts in what cleaning machines can do?

New technology is constantly being developed to increase efficiencies and simplify processes, and it is no different in the cleaning and housekeeping services industry. Innovative equipment streamlines cleaning procedures, increases employee productivity and provides a quicker return on investment.

The use of AI has opened a new dimension in what can actually be done in creating safe spaces, and broken the barriers of physical human involvement. The usage of robotics and cobotics (people and robots working together) revolutionised the ways in which equipment can be deployed and managed, often sensing and minimising risks to humans. Utilising the newest and most efficient technology will allow maintenance personnel to perform tasks more easily and prevent issues from escalating.

How are your solutions driving the much-needed changes you’ve described?

In a country like India which is an emerging third-world country with limited access to essential services like electricity and transport, and which is in the throes of a water crisis, our cleaning machines tick all the boxes. Our machines are cordless, which eliminates their dependence on electricity and power outlets. The usage of water is minimal and is replenished with the same amount of potable water. The machines are minimalist in design and lightweight, so they can be carried anywhere, liberating the cleaner and simplifying the cleaning procedure.

After all, innovation is about entrepreneurial solutions to global challenges, and that is just what we do at i-team India!

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