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Impact 0022: Creating opportunities for the marginalised

Benjamin Chua · 19 July 2021
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Speco: Cleaning Technology Social Enterprise In Singapore

In Singapore, we grow up hearing the prevalent but damaging saying, “If you don’t work hard, you’ll end up as a cleaner.” There’s an underlying assumption that only lowly-educated persons take on unwanted jobs within the cleaning industry.

Benjamin Chua wants to change this perception. 

The 33-year-old is the founder and CEO of Speco (formerly Spic & Span), an award-winning, cleaning technology social enterprise. Having started as an inclusive cleaning company, Speco has since grown into a B-corporation that aims to protect Singapore from COVID-19 through its proprietary antimicrobial technology. 

Despite Speco’s impressive evolution, it has not lost sight of its social enterprise roots. We sat down with Benjamin to discuss Speco’s role in helping vulnerable and marginalised workers find dignified employment opportunities within the cleaning industry.

Benjamin speaking with his co-workers.
PHOTO CREDIT: BENJAMIN CHUA

Beginning Speco as a way to help retrenched elderly workers

Speco didn’t start as a business idea. Rather, it was a way to help seven retrenched elderly hotel employees find new work.

In 2016, a friend in the hotel industry approached Benjamin and asked if they could do anything to help him. Benjamin decided to port their skills over to a new domain — housekeeping — and connected them with clients living in service apartments. Demand for the service quickly grew. In six months, Benjamin was matching his housekeepers to 50 different apartments, up from the initial three.

Seeing potential in the project, Benjamin left his promising career at the Ministry of National Development to focus on it. He named the social enterprise Spic & Span and expanded his company’s hiring practices to include other marginalised and vulnerable groups in Singapore.

To do so, he partnered with over 60 social service agencies to identify and provide employment to ex-offenders, persons with disabilities, persons with mental health issues and single parents. 

Challenges faced working with vulnerable and marginalised groups

However, working with individuals with backgrounds atypical from his previous places of work was challenging. Having no experience in managing them, the company saw a 90 per cent turnover rate in its first year.

“It’s so embarrassing but I have to admit it and face up to it. It was precisely because we didn’t know how to manage the workers – that’s why they left,” Benjamin shared.

He goes on to say that as the boss and manager of workers from vulnerable and marginalised groups, it’s necessary to acknowledge they have unique challenges. 

“You have to consider if they have the mental bandwidth, family support, and physical mobility to come back to work. Taking a one-size-fits-all approach to managing them will not work. That’s where trust and communication between employers and employees come in.”

While employers must be willing to provide aid and a listening ear, it’s crucial to recognise they are not certified counsellors. That’s why Benjamin emphasises the need to partner with social service organisations for trained support. 

These management strategies have clearly worked as Speco’s current turnover rate is less than 20 per cent.

Training Speco employees to use clearing tech has allowed them to draw higher salaries.
PHOTO CREDIT: BENJAMIN CHUA

Dignity at work in the cleaning industry

But providing those from vulnerable and marginalised groups stable employment opportunities is not enough. Benjamin understood that if he wanted to retain his workers, having dignity at work was an equally important factor to address. 

Being a cleaner is generally seen as a low-status, undesirable job due to its little pay, tough working conditions, and few career growth opportunities. At best, cleaners are invisible; no one acknowledges them while they’re at work. At worst, they are verbally or physically abused.

“If you’re not in this industry, you won’t think about the working conditions of the cleaners. In the CBD, they come in at 7am and have to hide by 9am when the office workers come in. They don’t have proper rest areas. On their short breaks, they have to hide away in toilets or stairwells.”

Benjamin goes on to share how it’s not uncommon that his workers report that they are looked down upon or treated as “not even human”. Sometimes, members of the public will take out their feelings on cleaners by purposefully dirtying the toilets or littering the floor with toilet paper. Other times, the operation managers of the clients he rents out his workers’ cleaning services to are verbally abusive. 

“They say, ‘Eh you so stupid for not doing this’, ‘You’re worthless’, ‘Useless people, can’t even do this job’. If I get called ‘dumb’ every day, I don’t think I would want to come to work as well.” 

While Benjamin cannot control how the public treats his workers, he does his best to place his cleaners in healthy work environments and checks in with them. Another way of giving them dignity is to raise their status in society. The first step to achieving that is to have his workers paid a wage that secures their basic needs.

Speco workers at a briefing session.
PHOTO CREDIT: BENJAMIN CHUA

Raising the wages of his cleaners through R&D

“When I first entered the industry, cleaners were being paid $600 to $800 a month. It’s hard to survive on that amount, I don’t think I can do it.”

In an attempt to rectify this, Benjamin paid his staff an above-average market-rate and based salaries on the Progressive Wage Model. But he realised this strategy was limited; his company’s growth and his workers’ earning power were limited to the amount of specialised knowledge they had.

“The current cleaning market is extremely competitive and that keeps the pay low. You cannot drive up wages for the sake of driving up wages. You have to be able to provide extra value so customers will be willing to pay more to have a more sustainable business.”

Benjamin began steering his company towards research and development for eco-friendly cleaning solutions. What resulted was Speco, an antibacterial coating that disinfects surfaces and lasts up to six months.

“I do regular cleaning at home with SPECO and other biodegradable products. In my own house, I can eat in the toilet in peace knowing that it is clean,” he joked. 

With Speco, new job positions such as cleaning tech and quality assurance specialists could be created. Workers were upskilled when taught how to use the cleaning tech. This allowed them to be paid a monthly income of $1,800 to $2,000, which is a salary beyond the Progressive Wage Model. 

In this regard, Benjamin doesn’t view sustainability only in-terms of environmentalism. The philosophy extends to how he plans for the social aspect of his business to persist in the long-term.

Speco cleaning products can disinfect surfaces for up to six months.
PHOTO CREDIT: BENJAMIN CHUA

Providing job opportunities to marginalised groups

Speco has come a long way from a little cleaning enterprise that organised the entirety of its operations with a single excel sheet. 

The social enterprise has trained, upskilled and provided jobs for more than 300 people. Currently, it employs 60 individuals and has integrated antimicrobial cleaning technology, bots and cloud technology into its processes.

In the next five years, Benjamin’s goal is to build Speco into a regional company. He wants to further transition Speco from a service-based business to an export-oriented one. To do so, he wants to create more green cleaning technologies and lower their costs. 

This way, he can pay his workers better too. He aims to have his lowest-paid employee draw a monthly income of $2,000. Ultimately, he hopes Speco can be a stepping stone for his employees so they can have a better life.

“I never expected that the company would be where we are right now. As the steward of this ship, it’s a learning journey [both professionally and personally]. If one day, touch wood, this whole thing goes down under, I can walk away knowing that I have done my best.

“Because even if I can help just one person, it would have been worth my time.

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