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Women in the cleaning industry:Making their (strong) presence felt

Women in India have generally been projected as traditional homemakers and housekeeping as a profession is viewed as an extension of their existing role. Right from the ayah in the schools to the washerwoman in hospitals to the domestic help in the house – they are all mostly women. When Alu Dewa, the oldest conservancy worker of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, took up cleaning as a profession five decades ago, it was the only job she could do being an illiterate. But one look at the various cleaning equipment at the Clean India Pulire show in 2009 where she was felicitated by CIJ, she agreed that being a part of the cleaning industry was indeed a matter of pride.

The scene has changed even more in the last decade with women playing more responsible and challenging roles in the cleaning industry. “When we started the service business, people used to think about cleaning as just jhadoo- pochha for which no special skill was required, but now the cleaning industry has come a long way,” affirms Rupali Sethi, Managing Director, Manmachine Works Pvt. Ltd. People understand the importance of cleaning, have educated themselves and realised the benefits of keeping a clean and healthy environment, she says.

The situation is now improving on the supervisory level as educated girls are doing well but still there is a lot of scope for improvement – Rupali Sethi

“In India, women play a wider role and are exposed to multi-tasking. Housekeeping comes to them naturally,” confirms Sonal Chitroda, Managing Director, All Services Under One Roof. Hence, they perform successfully and diplomatically in their professional life too. “Working in the cleaning industry is an extended life for a woman,” she adds.

“Initially, women were involved only in the ‘easy’ and lighter cleaning activities. With time, their potential has come to the fore and they have proved to be ‘equal’ if not ‘better’ than men,” asserts Lathaa Ganesh, Senior General Manager-Housekeeping, Faber Sindoori Management Services Private Limited, Chennai.

Now women are involved in all core cleaning activities – external cleaning, public area cleaning, room cleaning, bed making, patient assistance, patient mobilisation, floor maintenance, carpet cleaning, glass cleaning, high rise cleaning, linen & laundry management, garden maintenance and so on.

“We have two women in the facade cleaning team and they are performing extremely well. This is one area where women do not work willingly,” says Prathibha Blessing, Caere India.

Not just cleaning activities “women, who had a select area of work, are now seen in all sectors of the cleaning industry – from training to operations to even key decision makers,” adds Archana Bhatnagar, Proprietor, Haylide Chemicals. “Approximately 50% of our staff – at the Inox multiplexes – in the metros are women and in the smaller towns, they comprise around 20% of our total staff strength,” says Anita Rodrigues, Vice-President-Housekeeping, Inox Leisure Ltd. Against a count of 20-50 male employees, “we have between 30-90 female employees performing housekeeping duties,” says Anne Rodriguez, Director of Environmental Services/ Housekeeping, Texas, USA.

Carewel Facilities (India) Pvt. Ltd employs around 550 women as cleaners, office attendants, helpdesk & front office assistants, housekeeping supervisors and training executives, of which 80% work as janitors.

Jami Goldych, Assistant Manager, Environmental Services, Turning Stone Resort and Casino, Verona, New York, says that the resort has 52 females, approximately 36.7% from a work crew of 142 team members, excluding team leaders and supervisors. “Woman janitors are required in our industry and at Manmachine Works 10% of our staff are women,” says Rupali Sethi. Similarly, of the 4500 on board Caere India, 65% are women.

Problems faced by women

There are numerous hurdles to overcome and unfortunately, these obstacles are even greater for women. It takes grit and determination to achieve success – and no where can that be seen greater than in the women in the cleaning industry, debates Lathaa.

Archana agrees. “Women employees at my office and factory face the biggest challenge of striking a balance between the work place and home. Bringing up small children in the nucleus setup and given the restricted financial capability, they are unable to find alternative solutions.”

This leads to absenteeism and other related problems. One way of tiding over this, says Archana, is by providing some kind of common crèche with flexibility in working hours which will help women to go home during lunch hours or even teach their children in office, especially during exams.

Lack of family support is another major issue, says Anita Rodrigues. “Women cleaning staff lack family support for their work and late working hours becomes a problem. The lack of traditional 9am-5pm timing in this profession is often looked down upon,” she explains.

Long working hours or putting extra working hours on occasions is definitely an issue with most women staff. “But, by and large, women employees have been observed to be very regular to work and highly reliable,” says Prathibha.

“Even then, we have found that clients raise objection to employing more number of women. This mainly stems from the fact that clients use housekeeping staff for odd jobs like lifting loads and with women on the roll, it would not be possible. These odd jobs do not fall under the scope of the service contract but housekeeping staff do oblige to keep up their jobs.”

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