I don't eat at hawker centres

PHOTO: I don't eat at hawker centres

If there is one thing her job has taught her, it is to avoid hawker food if she can help it. Mrs Lim is a cleaner at a food centre in the eastern part of Singapore, and she says she cannot abide by the state of cleanliness.

Or lack thereof.

There is hardly enough time to rinse out the cloths they use, which means the same piece of fabric not only wipes off the food scraps from the table and the mess on the trays, it also cleans off bird droppings.

"I've been working as a cleaner for so long, I don't eat at hawker centres any more," says the feisty 65-year-old widow - who has been a cleaner at the hawker centre for the last two years.

Her meals are packed from home.

"Most of the hawkers are always in a rush so the utensils are never washed properly."

"Other times you see bird droppings on tables, it's just not clean enough for me. I'd rather bring food from home to be safe."

To be fair, the cleaners try their best to make sure that their cloths are cleaned as often as possible, but once peak hour hits, they'd rather let the cloth be dirty than get yelled at for being slow.

Mrs Lim has been "disgusted" when customers leave their table in a mess after eating, she confesses.

The former production operator started working as a cleaner four years ago.

For $800 a month, she spends eight hours a day cleaning after customers.

The work, she says, is back-breaking.

Every day, she scrambles from table to table, clearing used plates and trays as quickly as possible.

Occasionally, she has to deal with rude patrons who complain that she is "too slow".

While initially hesitant to tell her story when approached, the slight woman eventually agreed to speak to The New Paper On Sunday "just to share my experience".

"The job is difficult already, I spend my time here pushing a trailer going from table to table separating the plates from the halal and non-halal stores."

Separating dishes takes time.

At her age, that is already a challenge. But to make matters worse, customers litter the entire table with bones and prawn shells.

If someone spills soup on the floor, she is expected to clean it up as well.

What sets her off, however, are impatient customers.

These people, she adds, expect their tables to be clean the moment they arrive at the hawker centre.

"They'll get angry and call me cranky," she says.

Still, she concedes that such scenes are part and parcel of her job.

But could such scenes be a thing of the past?

After all, the National Environment Agency (NEA) and the Singapore Kindness Movement (SKM) launched the National Tray Return Initiative on Nov 11.

The initiative aims to promote the gracious act of returning one's crockery and trays after meals. "I think it is a good idea but I don't think it will work," she says.

"As long as there are cleaners like me around, some people who come here are used to people picking up after them," she sighs.

"Don't get me wrong, I get many polite people who are friendly who will help me to clear their trays when I come over.

"But this doesn't happen very often."

Mrs Lim says her years on the job have taught her how to "work smart".

For example, she is friendly with a group of Bangladeshi workers who work nearby.

"One morning I came to work and there was vomit and beer bottles, which was unbearable," she remembers.

"Luckily the workers were around and helped me to clean the area... a good thing since I don't think I could handle cleaning the mess on my own."

Mr Abdul Rahman Jasman, a cleaner at Geylang Serai Market & Food Centre, agrees that the job can be hard.

"I guess I am lucky working here because the customers who come here seem to be much more friendlier and more considerate," says the 76-year-old.

The former captain of an anchor boat and father of five children aged between 32 to 48-years-old has been working at the food centre since last year, earning $800 each month.

When told of Mrs Lim's predicament, Mr Abdul Rahman could only muster a smile.

He adds: "That's the hardest part of the job, dealing with people."

"But they come and go, I've faced some difficult customers myself but I always tell myself - it's just a job."

Secrets of the trade

1. Try to work as fast as you can - clear tables faster and you're not likely to anger difficult customers in the process.

2. Make friends with the foreign workers in the area - you never know when you're going to need their help.

3. When you need a break, lean on the cart and walk from one end of the hawker centre to the other. People may think you're still working but you're actually having a much needed breather.