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Meet the Cleaners Who Keep You Safe

Invisible but essential, underpaid and overworked, they’re standing between you and COVID-19. And risking their lives.

Christopher Cheung 29 Apr

Christopher Cheung writes about the sociology of the city for The Tyee. Follow him on Twitter at @bychrischeung or email him.

“Before, we were referred to as that cleaner,” said Vilma Lopez, who’s worked at a BC Hydro building for 17 years and cleaned houses before that.

“Now, people are recognizing our worth.”

At a time when everyone’s thinking about the surfaces they touch, the janitors who once quietly did the cleaning are now in the spotlight.

Any place — office, shelter, hospital — still in operation is being made safe by cleaners.

These days, that takes more work and involves more risk to the health of the cleaners and their families — who are still being paid close to minimum wage without additional hazard pay.

Even when the worst of the pandemic is over, it’s likely that higher standards will be expected of cleaners.

“There is nothing wrong with a cleaning job, except the hourly pay and the lack of respect workers are shown,” said Diego Mendez, a spokesperson with Service Employees International Union Local 2, which represents about 10,000 janitors in Canada.

In Toronto and Ottawa, where the union’s been organizing longer, the majority of janitors are unionized; Vancouver’s not there yet.

Before the pandemic the union won paid sick days, modest wage increases, a benefit plan and a pension plan for some workers, but the pay still remains too low compared to the cost of living. As a result, many cleaners work a second or third job.

With COVID-19 increasing the workload and the risks, the union’s Justice for Janitors campaign has been calling on property owners, managers and cleaning contractors to give workers a raise of $2 per hour, promise no layoffs and ensure they have proper protective equipment.

The cleaner workforce is made up of vulnerable populations, largely racialized and female, and “sadly we have made a habit of undervaluing the work of both in our society,” said Mendez.

Many immigrants end up “trapped” in the cleaning industry because the experience and credentials they possess from abroad aren’t recognized in Canada, so their options are limited, he added. Not speaking fluent English is another barrier.

Here are three union cleaners in Metro Vancouver talking about how their work and home lives have changed during the pandemic, from how they manage their commutes to explaining to their children why they can’t hug them when they come home.

Muaafa Ahmed Alsuraihi

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‘Even if we don’t have a raise, at least words or some gesture of appreciation,’ said Alsuraihi. Photo by Christopher Cheung.

Muaafa Ahmed Alsuraihi’s children are always ready to hug their dad when he comes home from work. But these days he’s been shouting for them to stop.

“I have to take a shower right away,” he said in Arabic through a translator. “They’re bothered. They’re shocked, like what’s going on? Why don’t you give us a hug like before?”

Alsuraihi is the kind of dad who brings home candy and tries to buy his kids things they see at the store. Now he has to tell them to be careful what they touch.

Alsuraihi makes $15.05 an hour as part of the team that cleans the HSBC Canada building in downtown Vancouver, the office tower on West Georgia known for the giant swinging pendulum in its lobby. At the moment, he’s also covering the duties of a co-worker who’s away for a month.

“It’s the same work, but the company wants us to do more of it and better than before,” he said.

The office tower is almost empty these days as people work at home, but there’s still a lot of fear about contracting the virus among his co-workers. Cleaners were told of someone with a case of COVID-19 on the 23rd floor, and even though it’s been disinfected since, the cleaners dread that floor.

“I had to do this job because I don’t speak much English,” Alsuraihi said.

Alsuraihi is originally from Yemen, where he was a chef. He fled due to the civil war that broke out in 2015. The story of his journey to Canada is complicated, involving a nightmare of paperwork and border crossings with a son in tow while his wife in Vancouver was pregnant with their second child.

They were reunited two years ago, and live on the east side together with their three young children, eight, five and one. His wife stays at home with them.

Fearful of bringing the virus home, Alsuraihi wishes he could rent a room or have a separate place to sleep to keep his family safe. He finishes work after midnight and then takes two SkyTrains home, worrying about the chances of contracting the virus along the way.

To make things more challenging, Ramadan started last week. For Alsuraihi, a Muslim, fasting during daylight hours in Vancouver is hard as the days grow longer — now about 14 hours between sunrise and sunset.

“Back home, it’s only eight hours,” he said.

Alsuraihi would love hazard pay, but more important is the recognition of the work that he and his fellow cleaners do, he says.

“We’re sacrificing our own lives to keep other people safe, even though we have kids at home,” he said. “Even if we don’t have a raise, at least words or some gesture of appreciation. We’re the ones making everything clean. If you take care of us, you’ll get a better result.

“People should appreciate our work. How can buildings operate without us?”

Jinky Alviar

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Jinky Alviar works two jobs and 14-hour days. ‘We’re essential to the public, but we’re risking our safety and our family’s safety.’ Photo by Christopher Cheung.

Jinky Alviar was a full-time cleaner at the Capilano University campus in North Vancouver when COVID-19 hit. These days, with the required sanitations and deep cleans, she feels as though she’s doing twice the work in the same number of hours. She isn’t able to take her usual 15-minute break because it’s so busy. Her 30-minute lunch break leaves little time to do everything needed to reduce the risk of transmission and still eat.

And while she’s working now, Alviar fears that could change.

“We hope they won’t cut costs when things go back to normal,” she said. “We’re worried we might get laid off.”

When she finishes work on campus, Alviar takes the bus to an ICBC branch, where she is also full-time cleaner, and starts the second half of her 14-hour workday.

Three of her co-workers at the university had second jobs at the Lynn Valley Care Centre, also in North Vancouver, the union said. The outbreak at the centre resulted in at least 20 deaths and was home to one of the earliest outbreaks of COVID-19 in Canada.

The shifts and the commutes leave her feeling “exhausted and exposed” when she arrives home in Burnaby to her family.

“We’re essential to the public, but we’re risking our safety and our family’s safety,” Alviar said. “I’m always careful when I’m at work, but with the bus and the SkyTrain I’m exposed to the public. When I get home, I remove my clothes straight away and put them into the laundry every day, just to be safe.”

Alviar and her husband, a glasscutter, have three kids. Like Alsuraihi, she has told her children hugs have to wait until she’s showered and changed clothes.

“Even when my kids want to hug me, I have to say no — two metres away! Always before my kids would come say hello to me and give me a hug. Now this big gap is there.”

Vilma Lopez

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Lopez in front of the BC Hydro campus in the Edmonds neighbourhood of Burnaby where she works. Photo by Christopher Cheung.

Vilma Lopez doesn’t have a long commute to work, but she says the 20 minutes she spends on the SkyTrain are the hardest part of her day.

“It makes me the most stressed,” said Lopez in Spanish through a translator. “I cover myself from head to toe — and it’s hot.”

She doesn’t get on the train without a mask, gloves and a scarf over her head.

In the 17 years that Lopez has been cleaning the BC Hydro Edmonds campus, she’s never seen anything like this pandemic.

When the first offices in the building were closed and her team was sent in to clean they panicked, thinking those areas were infected and wondering about the risks they faced.

They feel uncertain every day about what they face. “There’s a lot of fear when we go into work nowadays,” Lopez said.

The cleaners are used to uncertainty. In February 2019, they were all about to be fired. BC Hydro contracts out management of its buildings to the multinational Brookfield Global Integrated Services. Brookfield contracts out cleaning to another company and had planned to shift to a new contractor. The workers would lose their jobs and the collective agreement they had negotiated would be ripped up.

Their appeal to the BC NDP government, about to introduce legislation protecting workers from contract flipping, blocked the move.

But Brookfield still made cuts to the contract, resulting in lower staffing levels and workload issues, said the union.

With the pandemic, there’s even more pressure on Lopez and the other cleaners.

Lopez is especially worried about contracting the virus because she’s diabetic, which increases the risks. One day recently she woke up with a migraine.

“Oh my God!” she said. “I thought I got it when I woke up sick.”

But after staying home for two days, she felt well enough to go back to work.

Her husband, a manager at a mushroom farm, had his hours cut in half, so Lopez is thankful for having work.

“At least I have my full hours,” she said.  [Tyee]

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