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Jan Wong discusses her 'Maid for a Month' series

Jan Wong was on-line earlier today to discuss Maid for a Month, a five-part series in which she chronicles her experience taking a job as a maid to find out what it's like to live as a low-income Canadian. For the past month, Jan and her sons Ben Shulman, 15 and Sam, 12, have been living in a basement apartment in Scarborough while Jan has worked as a cleaner making about $1,300 a month - an annual salary of less than $15,000 a year. In her first piece , Jan wrote about learning surprisingly intimate things about her clients, and about the hard lessons one learns living at minimum wage. "I had never considered Canada to be a poor country," writes Jan. "But it turns out that despite ever-higher educational levels and productivity, we have one of the biggest proportions of low-paid workers in the world, defined as those earning less than two-thirds of a country's median annual earnings."

In last Saturday's paper, in the second in the series, Jan writes about her first day on the job and about her new colleagues. "At Maid-It-Up, my co-workers do call themselves maids, with all the self-abnegation that implies," writes Jan. "They are sweet and lots of fun. But some can't calculate the GST, or spell, or navigate the Toronto transit system. Many can't deal directly with clients. A few don't even look up when they speak."

Next week, Jan shops for $1 meal deals at No Frills while her sons mooch dinners at their friends' houses.

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Editor's Note: globeandmail.com editors will read and allow or reject each question/comment. Comments/questions may be edited for length or clarity. HTML is not allowed. We will not publish questions/comments that include personal attacks on participants in these discussions, that make false or unsubstantiated allegations, that purport to quote people or reports where the purported quote or fact cannot be easily verified, or questions/comments that include vulgar language or libellous statements. Preference will be given to readers who submit questions/comments using their full name and home town, rather than a pseudonym.

Michael Snider, globeandmail.com: Hello Jan, and welcome to your first on-line discussion. We're really happy to have you on. We already have dozens of questions and comments from readers who've read parts one and two of Maid for a Month, so let 's get right to it. First, though, I have a question: I'm curious what your inspiration was (beyond your own curiosity, of course). Was there a specific incident or occurrence that made you wonder what it would be like to live as a low-income Canadian? And why did you chose cleaning houses? Where there any other options? Did you consider applying at Wal-Mart or something?

Jan Wong: Hi Michael, The minimum wage was going up in Ontario on Feb.1, from $7.45 to $7.75. An editor asked me to write about that and I figured the most compelling way was to get a job at that rate. And then I thought that would be meaningless unless I also tried to live on the budget. And then I thought I should bring my kids into it because women dominate low-wage jobs. And single parents account for one in five food bank users in Toronto.

I had also read Barbara Ehrenreich's best-seller, Nickel and Dimed . Sam gave it to me for my birthday two years ago. (I'd requested it.) And about five years ago, someone I'd interviewed over lunch had told me maid agencies were always looking for maids. I had planned at some point to work as a maid. It all came together when I couldn't get any other job. And yes, I did apply to Wal-Mart.

Ralph McGreevy, Yingkou, Liaoning, China: A Chinese friend asked me if there were poor people in Canada, and I assured her that there were. Jan Wong really shows what some people have to do to get by. At least she can get out of it in a little while, but the other ladies will likely be stuck cleaning other people's toilets. Sad business, isn't it?

Jan Wong: In China, people assume everyone is rich in the west. And most Canadians are indeed richer than most Chinese in China. Poverty is always relative. That doesn't make it any easier to bear. And yes, you're right, Ralph. I knew the entire time I was cleaning that there was an end in sight, with a comfortable home, a good job and lots of security waiting for me.

Leslie Doucet from Kingston writes: I'm curious about two things. First, how long do these women usually stay in these jobs, and what reason do they have for leaving, i.e. better jobs or family obligations? And second, how cognizant are these women about their rights as workers?

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Jan Wong: They stay only a short time. Many of my fellow maids had only worked there a few months. The longest tenure was 18 months. They leave because they can't stand it any longer, or because their children are too young, and they can't get back early enough in the day.

In answer to your second question: No, I don't think they are aware of their rights. Many are people with very low coping skills.

Karen McIntosh from Hamilton writes: Thanks for taking questions today Jan. I've greatly enjoyed your articles - as always - and have read the comments left on-line by readers. Many were very critical of the fact that you have a housekeeper and expressed the view that you were being hypocritical of those that hired you as a maid. Would you care to defend yourself here? Also, did you learn any great cleaning tips you would like to share?

Jan Wong: Thanks, Karen. I don't understand what is hypocritical about my hiring a housekeeper. She has worked for me and my family full-time for 11 years. Now she comes in once a week. As for cleaning tips, yes, I learned a lot. I have cleared the clutter from my counters. I keep sprays and paper towels and rags in several places so it's easy to do touch ups. And I keep cleaning out drawers and closets. I'm a slob in transition.

Kwingche Chan from Mississauga writes: Knowing that you can leave this job after one month, you can look forward to that day, but what is the general feeling among your co-workers for this type of work, it is pretty dead-end? Are there other benefits such as holiday pay, sick days off with pay if you are on salary? And do they have male workers for these kind of work? In the school systems, the janitors are males and they are well paid.

Jan Wong: Yes, this is a dead-end job. There is no chance for advancement. What would people advance to? We had no benefits, although I believe there was vacation pay, but only paid after people had been there a year. There were no male cleaners. I asked why. The owner's daughter said: Men can't do detail cleaning. They don't notice things. The owner said: A lot of clients are women, and they don't feel comfortable having a man in their homes. Men still dominate industrial cleaning which, as you point out, is better paid - and often unionized.

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Luke R from Mississauga, Ont.: You hit the nail right on the head. Old money doesn't exploit cleaners. They have their own personal staff that are paid and treated well because they don't need to make themselves feel powerful by exploiting people (they know they are powerful) and they don't want rumours circulating around their social circles that they're slave drivers. It's only the nouveau riche -- they are the upper-income bracket equivalent of the Trailer Park Boys. It's high time that our useless Ministry of Labour inspectors actually begin surprise inspections of these sweatshops rather than only responding to complaints which are rarely filed since the employees are too scared or don't even know that there is a mechanism out there to address these problems. Would that work?

Jan Wong: Old money wants discretion. They also don't want strangers coming into their homes (and possibly casing the joint). Complaints by employees are rarely filed. The women complained about the long hours, but no one seemed as irritated as I was that travel time was unpaid. They are not aware of where to address their problems. If they were more on top of things, they would probably not be doing agency maid work.

S McKinnon, Vancouver: I have been following Jan and her recent domestic endeavours . . . I was inspired this week by the chambermaid at the hotel where I stayed while on my most recent business trip. It was not that she cleaned my suite immaculately but that she made change for the tip that I had left her along with a note that I had overtipped her! Of course, I chased her down and thanked her again for a great job and the appreciative gesture. My story and Jan's investigative research leads us to the same point, simply to treat people as you would like to be treated yourself. Would I ever leave a mess for my mother or sister to clean up? How would I feel if I had met someone on several occasions who still did not know my name? It does not take that much to have some common sense or to make a small difference in our day-to-day lives. I feel fortunate to not be cleaning other people's toilets for a living but it is only because my mother did, that I was granted a university education and a better life. I do though, appreciate what people are willing to do to raise their children or simply to get by.

Jan Wong: I think hotel chambermaids (note the word "maids") are treated very similarly to agency maids. Someone I met told me her ex-boyfriend used to sleep in one bed, and then get up and roll around in the other bed - just to get his money's worth. I also have learned some lessons. I have cleared my bathtub of numerous surplus bottles of shampoo and now there's only one bottle, plus one bar of soap. Your mother cleaned homes? She must have had some stories to tell you when you were growing up!

J S, Toronto: I'm just curious as to whether or not you have actually come across decent people. I have a feeling that you have, yet it just does not make for a good story. Besides, everyone comes across inconsiderate people in their professions... Other than that, very interesting and informative article about surviving on low wages.

Jan Wong: Yes, Yes, I have met decent people. And I'm saving that for the last article (or maybe the fourth installment.) Don't worry, I will tell you all about them. I could kiss their feet.

Zorro Pen, Bellingham, Wash., U.S.A.: I was thinking to get a maid to clean my house once a week. But as I read your article, I decided I'll keep on cleaning myself. Have many people told you the same thing?

Jan Wong: Hi Zorro (love your name), I have a housekeeper, but I have also considered getting an agency maid. Now that I know what I know, I think I won't. Mainly people tell me they're so glad I didn't clean their homes.

Angelique Davis, St. John's, NFLD: Write a book, Jan, and I'll buy it! You're an interesting and entertaining read, for sure. Michael Snider, globeandmail.com: Is there a book in the works Jan? Any plans for one?

Jan Wong: Thanks for the encouragement, Angelique. Yes, I'm thinking about writing a book.

Tomoka Tsuhara, Calgary: Jan: I am impressed by the very fact that you not only took this opportunity to write about your experience as a maid but also brought your kids to experience it. What an amazing way to teach children! I am sure this can be an eye-opening experience for them and when they grow up, they will think twice more about the economic gap between the rich and poor, and all the mistreatments that people with lower socio-economic status receive just because they are not wealthy. Was this part of your plan?

Jan: I was quite surprised my kids agreed. I didn't even have to bribe them! (I have since taken Sam to a Leafs hockey game, with tickets I bought from a friend of a friend, at exorbitant cost - perhaps 10 days disposable income. At least the Leafs won 7-0.)

The kids have learned a lot. They want to give money, and not just nickels and dimes, to homeless people. They want to donate to food banks. And they are considerate now of the janitors at their school.

At first, I was only thinking of the journalistic benefit. In the far back of my mind, I thought there was an educational benefit. I told their guidance counsellors because I was afraid the move, disruption, etc., might affect their schooling and their behaviour. The guidance teachers worked with both of them, helping them see the wider ramifications of the project. Since then, both Ben, 15, and Sam, 12, have presented their views at school. Each has written a sidebar for this Saturday's third part. And Sam has done a live radio interview with CBC radio in Saskatchewan.

G.B. from Toronto writes: Hi Jan. Too bad you got turned down for the pizza delivery job. On the flip side of the gender-specific work stuff... are there any hidden barriers to men for signing up as a cleaner? If there are men in the business, do they tend to make more money?

Jan: Well, I think delivering pizzas would have been very stressful. Imagine trying to get it there before the deadline, or it's free. And the parking tickets! I rarely order pizza, but if I do, I will tip the driver a lot more than a toonie.

Re: gender barriers. It's really odd, but there are definite gender preferences for home cleaners. Women are much preferred, perhaps because of all the knicknacks. For industrial and office cleaning, men are preferred. Not sure why. The latter is often, but not always, better paid. But the latter also involves lots of night work.

Tired of all this from Canada writes: Hi Jan. What do you think is the biggest lesson you learned doing this series of articles? I'm wondering if your answer will be about dealing with the limited income, the employment conditions endured by the working poor, comments on the lifestyles of the people who's houses you cleaned, or something else.

Jan: My biggest lesson? I'll deal with that in the last in the series, I think. But to answer simply, I think I learned a lot about human relations, and how in our democratic society, there is still an underclass of working poor who are treated quite callously and rudely by otherwise civilized people.

Adeline Cheng from Toronto writes: Jan, I have been reading your articles with great interest & fascination. I gotta hand it to you, I find it difficult to imagine how challenging this experience was. And it is sad that this is the life for many working people today. My question: Was your intention to focus on the single mother's working experience or the immigrant single mother's working experience? Do you have any insights in how we might get at helping the working poor as a society?

Jan: I decided to focus on the single mom's working experience. I didn't really get into immigration issues, except to note that my fellow maids were mainly white, and most were not immigrants.

How to help the working poor? That's a huge question, and one I hope to touch on in Part Five, the closing article. I do think the minimum wage should at least keep pace with inflation. I also think the economics of the maid agency business is impossible. I think clients were paying a lot, we were getting paid very little and the owner wasn't making much, either. Consider that we were making house calls, and needed a car, insurance, gas, equipment, etc. The economics would only make sense if our clients were in a tight geographic area. I often drove three or four hours a day to get to houses.

Elinor Mahoney from Toronto writes: I was struck by your observation that many of the workers were functionally illiterate and unable to perform basic life-skills like map reading, etc. Do you have any insight as to why their schooling didn't 'take'? Did they simply drop out early, have to heave school to support families, have undiagnosed learning disabilities or did the school system fail them?

Jan: I think that many of the maids came from families where the parents weren't well-educated, either. Many of them had dropped out of high school. Maggie, my partner, had graduated from high school. She was in her early 50s, and could write beautiful notes to clients. She could figure out the math. The most helpless maids were the young ones, age 20 or 21, who seemed to have very few skills. I think that schools can't compensate entirely for homes where learning isn't valued.

Jackie Hamilton-Irving from Riverview writes: Dear Jan, I cleaned homes for three years and now I clean an Irish pub from 3:00 a.m.-9:00a.m., Tuesday-Saturday. I was paid $10/hour cleaning domestically but I had to walk to all my jobs and it was usually an 80 minute round trip. I had some kind employers, like one woman who would leave an extra $20 for me to take a cab home on -30 degree days. On the flipside was the woman who got her neighbour to clock what time I arrived and left and because I left 10 minutes early she wrote me a note, the following week, saying she was either going to deduct the time from my pay or I should clean an extra room!! I get paid $15/hour at the pub and even though I have to get up at 2:00 a.m. to begin my day, I prefer the 'one-stop cleaning'! I no longer have to walk to my jobs, I take the bus downtown and the pub owner said any change I find on the floor I can keep! I don't miss the dog hairs and sunken tubs to scrub but I do miss some of the kind people I worked for. I love your series, Jan and I treat myself to The Globe and Mail on my way home from work every Saturday. My 12 year old daughter noticed me reading your article last week-end and she said....'why are you reading about cleaners, Mom, when you do it all day?'

Jan: Hi Jackie, I had clients like that woman who got her neighbour to clock your time. I'm not surprised you'd rather do just the pub. I found it exhausting to clean an entire house, then drive to the next one and start all over again. That's great about keeping the change on the floor. I never kept it, but then, I only found pennies! I wondered if it was a test of my honesty, or just a showy way to let me know they were so rich they dropped money on the floor, or maybe they were just slobs. Thank you so much for reading my articles. I feel very honoured, considering how much the Saturday Globe costs, and how much you make, and how hard you work for that money!

J R from Vancouver writes: After reading the forum on your report last week, I bought and read Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed. I notice many similarities between your reports and her book, which go beyond just the fact that you are covering the same topic. You mention some of the same research as she does (e.g., the size of houses), you even call your fellow Maids with the same names she uses with hers (e.g., Holly). How did Nickel and Dimed influence your work for this assignment? In any case, I want to thank you for addressing the topic of 'untouchables' in Canada, a term both you and Ehrenreich use. Smug Canadians enjoy looking down their noses at American social problems, as if Canada was a better society. In truth, however, things are as bad, or often worse, here in Canada, as we are a poorer country with less opportunity. Could you deal with the issue of the law (labour, criminal) and the poor? Maybe you could deal with the Money Mart-type places who rob the poor of what little money they have sweated for. Thanks again.

Jan: I named Holly after the clarinetist in my woodwind trio. (She's thrilled.) But as I said in an earlier answer, I read Ehrenreich two years ago after Sam gave it to me for my birthday. I re-read it again carefully this time, during the month, as well as other books. I'm mentioning her this week, in Part III about living on minimum wage. There are a lot of differences between her project and mine: she included start-up problems - I didn't. She did many different kinds of jobs - I focused on maids. She moved around the country, but worked in smaller towns and cities - I stayed in Toronto, Canada's biggest city. Plus she was alone, and I brought my kids along. Having said that, I didn't realize Ehrenreich used the word "untouchables." What page?? I want to look it up.

In Canada, our minimum wages - set provincially- tend to be higher than many states. Our cost of living is higher, though. Poor people are less aware, I think, of legal protection. You saw how the convenience store owner tried to intimidate me in last Saturday's piece. The Money Mart stuff! I'll only get into that briefly in Part Four. But you may have heard Wal-Mart is trying to open a bank, and the real banks are all up in arms. They want to cater to poor people because they'll still charge fees, but they'll do it for less.

Nick Yaremchuk from Mill Bay, BC writes: You can't stereotype who does and doesn't exploit housekeepers; the 'nouveau riche' vs. 'old money' argument doesn't hold any water. What I would like to know is how a busy family who does find themselves about to hire a housekeeper, does it in an ethical way.

Jan: Stereotypes are never 100 per cent true, but they do represent a substantial chunk of reality. Hire a housekeeper, and pay her enough for her to be above the poverty line for your city or town. (Check Statscan or the chart in our first story.) Then, don't leave pig-sty messes for her (or him!), just regular weekly dirt. And pay her over-the-table, so that she gets EI, pension, etc. Is that too much to ask?

Elizabeth Shields from Toronto writes: Where can one access private cleaning help; where do you find such help? Letters to the Editor yesterday said that the best protection for ''maids'' is to use private help.

Jan: I'd depend on word of mouth. Ask friends and neighbours.

Mark Williams from Calgary writes: How many of your clients were inclined to leave a gratuity or tip for the services you gave them? Were they apt to tip after the first or second cleaning? This act might show their understanding of how maids are paid by their employers and recognize the extra efforts put in by the domestic help they hired.

Jan: Ah, tips! I calculated it and will detail it in Part Four or Part Five. One in every four left a tip, if you count an eight cent tip as a tip.

Timothy Philips from Toronto writes: Jan, what works better Mr. Clean or Vim?

Jan: Depends what you're cleaning. Vim is good for yucky toilets. Mr. Clean is good for sinks.

Bev Thompson from Mississauga writes: Jan I've always enjoyed your features and must admit I reinstated my subscription last week in response the announcement that yet another of your features was to begin. A second question is: has your attitude towards your own actual housework, and the involvement of your family members therein, changed since this experience? What reaction (if any) would your 'ex-colleagues' have to your real situation? Keep up the excellent articles!

Jan: Whew! Thanks for renewing your subscription. My job hung in the balance! (No, really. Thank you.)

Yes, definitely my attitude to housework has changed. I'm less lazy about doing it. It's not so bad if you just have to clean one house. I'm become a bit crazy, too. I see dirt everywhere in my house. So I'm always wiping things. Yes, my family is also doing more. I don't want my boys to be like those horrid men who can't clean a toilet.

Adnan Khan from Brampton writes: Hi Jan, Interesting series. I guess what makes me most curious is the reason why the women decide to go and work for a cleaning company and not venture out on their own to find work. They are getting anyway less than half of what the agency gets. Don't you suppose the better maids would leave the agency pretty quickly after they realize they can make it on themselves.

Jan: I kept asking my fellow maids why they didn't go out on their own. I'll discuss that in part four. The short answer is they didn't feel confident they could make it on their own. They wanted the security, however badly paid, of someone else arranging their cleans.

Michael Snider, globeandmail.com: Jan, thanks a bunch for coming on today. I hope you enjoyed it and I'd like to invite you back for another chat when the series ends. Readers, thank you very much for your many, many questions. We're very sorry for not being able to answer them all but thanks anyway. And please feel free to add your two cents by clicking on the "comment" link.

If you have any thoughts about the Discussion format or would like to see a particular reporter/columnist invited on or a particular subject covered, let us know. You can email your thoughts to msnider@globeandmail.com

Jan: Thanks, everyone, for chatting. And thanks, Michael, for hosting the discussion. I enjoyed taking everyone's questions today.

Jan

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