Meet the lady who cleans offices and is the central character of our recent research project. No one asks her name, she does not tell anyone what it is. She is simply known as ‘aunty’.
Aunty is 72 years old and lives with her daughter. Each day early in the morning (around 7 am) she makes her way on a bus to work. She does not want to intrude into the day to day life of the family and prefers to spend most of her time at work (including Saturdays).
By 9 am she is at work cleaning offices, dusting, vacuuming carpets, taking away trash. She silently cleans offices and just as silently leaves once she finishes. The only trace of her presence is the clean office she leaves behind.
By noon she has gathered quite a bit of recycling material. She stacks all this on her hand made cart which she has designed herself. Two big carton boxes tied securely on a trolley help her store what she has collected. To this she has added an umbrella to protect her from the sun. There is also space to hang her personal knick knacks and good luck charms. Finally a little pink stool attached to it so she can sit when she needs to rest.
She pushes her cart now weighing more than 50kg to sell to the Garang guni truck about 3 kms away. Once there she sells enough for a four dollar lunch. Then it is back to the offices for a solitary lunch. There she sits all by herself at the back of the building, just outside the air conditioned reception doors so that each time the door opens she gets some relief from the oppressive heat.
After lunch it is back to cleaning more offices or sorting and folding away everything in her ‘office’ – a passage way hidden out of sight from everyone. At dusk she hides away her cart somewhere in the dark corner of the building.
Then she heads out to her nocturnal job – as part of a formal cleaning crew in some high rise building once all the employees have emptied out. She cleans till late night. Finally at 10 pm it is time to call it a day and head home for some rest before the routine of the next day kicks in.
Most of aunty’s day is spent in the invisible spaces hidden away from everyone’s eyes. Yet if you only looked you could see her inventiveness in finding new business, how she expands her sources of income by providing additional value added services to offices or how she has constructed her cart which has a place for everything she needs.
At the upcoming Qualitative 360 conference in Singapore this month, we will be talking more about aunty, the informal economy and how commercial business can learn/tap into the informal economy for innovative service solutions.