'At Work' is a weekly column that takes a peak at people with unique professions, their living patterns and the changes the calling has seen in the years.

Covering his nose with a hand-kerchief, 65-year-old Subbaiah mixes acid with two different types of cleaning liquids and washes the public convenience on Anna Salai, amid slums, open drains and clogged waterbodies. He does this twice a day, collects two rupees from every user and lives in a small room attached to the toilet.

The disconcerting quality of life, led by a large number of people like Subbaiah, who eke out a living by cleaning toilets, acts as a sad reminder to urban poverty. Many public conveniences lack uninterrupted supply of water and basic amenities pertaining to hygiene.

The operation and maintenance of public conveniences under the control of the Chennai Corporation is awarded through tenders. While the contractor earns up to Rs.600 a day, staff members such as Subbaiah get the remaining collection which is around Rs.150 a day.

Subbaiah, however, seems to have fewer regrets than his counterparts working in commercial shopping centres in the city who earn even lesser than him.

“I have been here for 10 years now and I have had just a minimal increase in pay. Men as toilet attendants are employed in lesser number but earn almost a thousand more than us every month. We are supposed to rinse the toilets once in 10 minutes and we have a grading sheet on which we are marked according to customer complaints and the stains on the closet,” says Parvathi who works in a commercial complex in T.Nagar.

The toilets in office complexes and commercial shopping centres have undergone major upgrading in terms of look and feel with fairly recent addictions of tissue paper, artistically designed wash basins and flush operations.

What remains abysmal is the state of the attendants, who have constantly revamped themselves to the changing trends and demanding constraints of their profession, without any significant increase in their salaries.

In the absence of a representative body to voice their demands, the attendants feel the lack of societal concern towards their profession. What is most conspicuous is the absence of gloves, masks and general health awareness required to do such jobs. Most of them feel the label attached to their profession makes it very difficult to switch over to other jobs like a domestic help in homes.

With no bonus, long work hours, and need to work over time during festivals, the attendants in the commercial shopping places feel the absence of social life.

“We are given the basic cleaning equipment such as sweepers, liquids and basic uniforms. The mopping machines are used only in toilets situated close to food courts alone where people frequent often. Now that people from almost all parts of the country come here, even the music is suited to their taste and not regional,” says Arsamma, toilet attendant in a mall in the city.

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