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Coming clean

Globe and Mail Update

My partner takes the kitchen and I tackle the bathroom. Big mistake. When I ask the client, a sexy twentysomething in tight jeans and top, if she wants to use the washroom before I get started, she looks horrified. "I never use the toilet here," she says.

And then I see why. Frisbee-sized stains of ochre urine encircle the base of the toilet. Feces splatter its rim and underside. The seat is streaked with old urine. Solidified toothpaste, spit, phlegm, beard stubble and pubic hairs — how did they get there? — coat the sink. The floor is thick with dust balls and more hair.

It turns out the woman doesn't actually live here. This 12th-floor condominium at Toronto's trendy Queens Quay, off Lake Ontario, belongs to her boyfriend. They're professionals, in finance. His condo is closer to their offices. But she refuses to move in until he has had the condo professionally cleaned.

By us, a crack team from a company I'll call Metro Maids. My partner and I have been sent here at a one-time, first-clean rate of $28 per hour, per maid, plus GST. At least, that's what the company gets. For workdays that stretch to 11 or 12 hours, I will earn less than minimum wage.

But I don't know that yet. One of the many bad things about working at low-wage jobs is, incredibly, it's not always clear what you are getting paid. Right now, I'm concentrating on the toilet, which apparently hasn't been cleaned in a year, possibly two.

I spray it all over with Fantastik Original. Then I use Fantastik With Bleach, Vim Oxy-Gel, Mr. Clean, old-fashioned soap and water, scouring brushes, paper towels. I let the poisons marinate, while I attack the sink.

Meanwhile, Mr. Filth and his paramour are necking on the dusty couch. She's in his lap, giggling. He's feeling her up. My middle-aged partner has a clear view from the galley kitchen, which opens onto the living room. I see them every time I step into the hall for more paper towels.

I am working undercover — though I applied for this job using my real name — but this is ridiculous. I'm practically under the covers with them. Then I understand. We are maids, and therefore we are invisible, subhuman, beneath notice. We are the untouchables of the Western world.

Every other lousy job has a euphemistic title. Garbage men are sanitation workers. Undertakers are funeral directors. Whores became prostitutes and then sex workers. Gender-specific professions have neutered their titles too. Stewardess has become flight attendant. Waitress has become server. But maids! The companies that employ us — and try to entice you — revel in the feudal grovelling and female subservience the word implies.

And so there are dozens of companies in North America that invoke the name: Maid Brigade, Maid for You, Maids to the Rescue, Maid to Sparkle, Magic Maids, Maid Marian Cleaning Service, Maids-R-Us, Sunshine Maids, Maid to Clean, Merry Maids, and, of course, Molly Maid.

And so the client behaves as if we're not there. He's a tall, pale blond man in his late 20s or early 30s. By his accent, I surmise he's from northern Europe. She appears to be from India. Mercifully, they finally stop necking and go out on an errand.

"Aren't they a lovely couple?" my fellow maid calls sweetly from the kitchen, where she is sweeping up the pistachio shells and used bamboo skewers that litter the floor.

"They're doomed," I mutter. "The relationship is doomed."

"Why do you say that?" she asks reproachfully.

"Because neither of them will clean a toilet." On Feb. 1, Ontario's minimum hourly wage rose to $7.75 from $7.45. For reasons that now escape me, I thought the best way to tell the story of that 30-cent raise was to work — and live — at the bottom of the food chain. I would find a low-paying job, a low-rent apartment and, single-mom-like, take my boys with me for the month and see how we survived.

In real life, we live close to the top of the chain. Our riding, which includes the Bridle Path, has the highest average income in the country, according to the Elections Canada's website. We vacation abroad. We have a part-time housekeeper. My boys go to a private school, where they wear grey flannels and speak French all day. Ben has two violin lessons a week. Sam's hockey gear costs more than his cello (yes, he's a goalie).

But to my surprise, both they and my husband, Norman, readily agreed. (Norman was thrilled with the prospect of having the house to himself.) "Cool, what are we going to eat? KD?" said Sam, 12, who prizes Kraft Dinner because he's sick of triple crème French brie. His brother, Ben, 15, was the embodiment of teen irony. "So I'll have a urine-soaked mattress?" he said. "Is the floor going to be, like, concrete?"

Before I set out on this assignment, I assumed $7.75 an hour, at 40 hours a week, was a living wage. I began crunching numbers. My monthly pre-tax income would be $1,240, or $14,880 a year. To my horror, I realized I wouldn't even reach halfway to the so-called "low-income cut-off line" of $31,126 set by Statistics Canada for an urban family of three.

I also assumed an increase in the minimum wage meant that the minimum wage had actually increased. Wrong again. Over the past 30 years, the minimum wage declined 13 per cent in real terms. In 1976, Ontario's minimum wage was $2.65 an hour, or $8.93 in today's dollars. In the meantime, Canada's standard of living soared 43 per cent, in real terms, from 1981 to 2003. In other words, the rich got richer. And Metro Maids? I was about to find out.

I had never considered Canada to be a poor country. 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 Canada, where the median hourly wage for those age 25 and over is $17.65, about 21 per cent of the work force is low-paid, versus 26 per cent in the United States, the world's richest country. In European countries, the proportion ranges from 7 per cent in Finland to 13 per cent in Germany.

By another benchmark many economists accept — a wage of $10 or less an hour — one in six Canadians working full-time earns low pay, according to a 2005 report by the Canadian Policy Research Networks, an Ottawa-based think-tank. Surprise! Women dominate these jobs. "No man is a hero to his valet," a certain Madame Cornuel of Paris opined in the 17th century. A century earlier, French essayist and wit Michel de Montaigne dryly noted, "Few men have been admired by their domestics."

Maid work, it turns out, is surprisingly compatible with investigative reporting. Aside from rummaging through people's dirty laundry, I get to manhandle their garbage, eyeball the paperwork on their desks, inspect the size of their underwear and peek inside their refrigerators.

Many clients are Globe and Mail subscribers — I know because I stack the recycling. At first, I worry someone will recognize me. What airs I give myself! Everyone looks straight through me, even when I say, "Hi, I'm Jan from Metro Maids." If clients speak to us at all, it's to alert us to cobwebs, dirty grouting and window mould.

About one-third of our clients leave keys. We never see them. Yet we know the most intimate things about them. We know if they're menopausal, or if it's that time of the month. And we know that you — yes, you — are the vice-president of a financial services company and make $175,000 a year. (You left your paycheque lying on the desk we wipe clean.)

We know the colour of your hair, and how long it is. It's all over the bathtub and your sheets, and, yuck, even on the kitchen counter. We know if it's curly, and whether you have a problem with that. That's your bottle of no-frizz oil on the bathroom vanity. Or if you have straight hair and prefer otherwise. Yes, we see the plastic curlers, tossed in a basket under the sink.

We know if you're plus-sized and care. Tsk, tsk. You haven't been exercising. The stationary bike beside your bed is covered in dust. And isn't that a Size 16 label from Laura clothing that you left lying on the bedroom floor for us to pick up? (We can't vacuum plastic tags; they wreck our equipment.)

We know the date you got married, and what you wore. You framed the wedding invitation, and the photos — sometimes the same one three times. Your dried-out bouquet is displayed in your living room. But we know when the bloom is off the rose. The day after Valentine's Day, we know who got flowers — and who didn't.

We even know what you will do before you do it. Tonight, you'll dine on beef stew. It's simmering in the Crock Pot while we wash your kitchen floor. And don't kid yourself. Of course we know if you drink a lot. The empties are there, and we can track them from week to week.

From the outset, I was willing to work anywhere and live anywhere. Well, maybe I'd draw the line at scrubbing for Naomi Campbell. (Police in New York took the supermodel in for questioning this week after her housekeeper was hospitalized with a laceration to the head. A spokesman denied Ms. Campbell was responsible, but who wants to take chances?)

If I earned $1,200 to $1,400 a month, and spent no more than one-third of my income on rent — the limit financial planners advise — my housing budget would be $400 to $470. An editor mentioned that an artist friend was subletting a small studio on Queen Street West. The price was $500 a month. I e-mailed in a nanosecond, but someone had already snapped it up. Another friend mentioned a one-bedroom somewhere on Kingston Road. It wouldn't be available for six weeks. A cousin's friend had a basement studio for $650. That was high, but alas, it also had been rented out.

A poverty analyst at Toronto's City Hall suggested that I try deepest Scarborough. "It has a lot of working poor," he said. So I headed there and, for moral support, brought along a friend. Fifteen minutes into our search, I passed a favourite sushi restaurant. I was starving. "It's 10:45 a.m.," said my friend disapprovingly. "You're supposed to be a single mom."

In a coffee shop, where my friend would not let me buy a muffin, I picked up a free newspaper listing rentals. After phoning several leads and getting nowhere, we drove to the address in one ad, a seedy high-rise at Ellesmere and Markham.

"Right now, it's renter's choice," said the building manager. He took me up in an elevator redolent of cumin and garlic to see a one-bedroom apartment on the 14th floor. It cost $795 a month and had a view of the CN Tower.

The kitchen was still grimy. Someone had dumped a bucket of urethane on top of the scarred parquet floors, leaving a thick, clear and solid puddle in the centre. Three holes in the bedroom door had been clumsily patched.

"Husband and wife fight," said the building manager, in Chinese-accented English. He seemed much more interested in hitting on my friend, but I managed to elicit bits of information. Parking was extra. The building's laundromat cost $1.25 per load. Roaches were possibly in residence. I would have to pass a credit check and fork over two months' deposit in advance.I had almost decided on the first apartment when I explained my project to a social worker who specializes in Scarborough. "Not that building. It's full of gangs and drugs," she said, steering me, instead, to the Scarborough Housing Help Centre.

I told the receptionist there that my budget was tight. I was willing to sleep in the same room with my boys.

"That's not a good thing," she said kindly. "Your children are supposed to have their own bedroom, or family services might get involved."

Two days later, I pored over the centre's new listings and made seven phone calls. Happily, the only one I got through to was for the cheapest apartment on the list, described as a one-bedroom basement unit, for $590. I rushed over.

The 1980s pink-brick monster home looked respectable. The owner, a Bangladeshi immigrant, met me on the frozen driveway in flip-flops. He told me that, alas, with my "share of utilities," the rent would actually be $670. He asked how many people would be moving in. When I told him, he said, "How will you sleep? How will your boys study?"

I said I would sleep in the living room. He shrugged, then led me down a flight of stairs and pounded on a door. After a few moments, a sleepy young Bangladeshi opened it and let us in. The room was a mess. It smelled so bad I needed to mouth-breathe. Then I saw why. There were no windows. There was no living room either. The basement consisted of a small, filthy kitchen and a narrow room, also windowless, which masqueraded as a bedroom, but was really a storage room enclosing the electrical box. Every time a fuse blew upstairs, the landlord would be in my children's bedroom.

Aside from windowless housing, I was also worried about signing a 12-month lease — a lawyer who specializes in tenants' rights warned me that with current high vacancy rates, landlords are suing renters who try to leave early. So I called an agent who settles newly arrived students from mainland China. She introduced me to Chen (all names have been changed), who was willing to rent me the basement of his tiny Scarborough bungalow for a month — just as soon as he got rid of two spoiled brats from China.

The students — both male — hadn't cleaned the place in a year. The white linoleum floor in the kitchen was so dirty it looked black. And at $750 a month, it would devastate my budget. But I didn't hesitate. It was the cheapest place I had found with windows. Besides, Chen, a cleaner at the Four Seasons Hotel, promised that once the students moved out, he would scrub it clean for me.

In the meantime, I hunted for work. Armed with a doctored résumé, I walked down Yonge Street, from College to King, resolving to answer every single "Help Wanted" sign I found. My résumé claimed I had a university degree — true — no recent experience and was entering the work force after raising my children. I dropped the CVs at Pizza Pizza, Money Mart, a clothing store (that was offering $7 per hour, cash) and Grand & Toy.

At Mamma's Pizza, I lined up behind three mid-afternoon customers. "Can I help you?" asked the burly counter man, smiling. I pointed to the "Help Wanted" sign. The smile faded. "It's not for you," he said. "We need a driver."

"I can drive," I said, feeling embarrassed and, somehow, poor. "How much does it pay?"

"Depends on how fast you work," he said, turning away.

The woman ahead of me said gently, "I think it's by the pizza."

I asked the counter man one last question: How much per pizza?

"$1.50," he said. "Plus tips. And you need your own car." During the Industrial Revolution, those in power cared little about living conditions as peasants flocked to cities to work in factories. But when they declared war on one another, they noticed the soldiers they conscripted were puny, sickly. Suddenly, governments began paying attention to sanitation, malnutrition, clean air — and labour laws.

In 1894, New Zealand became the first country to pass a minimum-wage law. The Australian state of Victoria soon followed. Great Britain introduced similar legislation in 1909. In 1900, Canada imposed a minimum wage for government contracts and public works. But it was up to the provinces to enact comprehensive legislation. British Columbia and Manitoba passed the first laws, in 1918. Ontario, Nova Scotia, Quebec and Saskatchewan soon followed. Initially, they protected only female workers. In 1925, B.C. passed the first law for male workers. Prince Edward Island was the last to pass minimum-wage laws: for women in 1959 and men in 1960.

For decades, provincial minimum-wage laws set higher pay for men than for women. The last gender-based difference disappeared in 1974. Today, the problem seems to be getting hired as a female driver at a pizza franchise.

A few days after getting rejected there, I flipped through Employment News, a freebie paper. One company wanted 20 experienced sewing-machine operators, but I don't know how to sew. But I do know how to interview someone. An ad from Ipsos-ASI, an advertising research company, seemed tailor-made for me. It needed telephone interviewers with "strong reading and keyboarding skills" for "market research." I e-mailed a résumé, emphasizing I don't have a foreign accent.

I also e-mailed a résumé to Kentucky Fried Chicken, which needed full-time kitchen help in its Fairview Mall location. I downloaded an application from Wal-Mart's website, and dropped it off. "We're not hiring," the clerk said. "We'll keep it on file for 60 days."

I had applied for eight minimum-wage jobs. No one called me back.

Then I remembered once lunching with a businesswoman who told me that Molly Maid always needed staff. I called the headquarters, which directed me to a franchisee in the outskirts of the city. They were hiring!

Daulat, the franchise owner, was a pretty woman from India with a plummy British accent. She wore high-heeled boots and slim pants and had long dark hair. She ran the franchise out of her apartment. She escorted me into her small office and asked why I was so desperate that I would clean houses.

"Marriage issues," I said.

She nodded sympathetically. She had bought the franchise 15 months ago when her own marriage collapsed. She cleaned for two days, to familiarize herself with the business. "I was absolutely exhausted."

Daulat already had three teams and was looking for a fourth.

"You get 18-per-cent commission on every clean," she said. When I looked puzzled, she explained. A client typically paid $75 for a clean by two maids that lasted an hour and a half. I got 18 per cent of the clean, or $40 to $50 a day for cleaning four houses.

Travel time was unpaid. That meant for a workday of 10 or 11 hours, I would be getting paid for only five or six. Apparently, calling it a "commission" gets around the minimum wage.

When I looked unimpressed, she asked, "Can you drive?" A "route manager" gets two extra percentage points commission. I would get a pink and purple Molly Maid car. But I would have to drive, figure out the schedule, the route, keep time sheets and handle all the cash, cheques and, ominously, "non-payments." I'd work the longest hours because I'd have to pick up and drop off my teammate. On Friday nights, I would have to go to the office to cash out, and return all the keys.

"Oh, and you have to wash the rags. We pay 35 cents per house. We don't use paper towels because it's too costly."

I told her that I could start the following week. But when I called back, she said she was now interviewing others.

So I called my last hope, Metro Maids. The owner, Nariman, a soft-spoken man from India, met me at a Coffee Time in Scarborough. His deal wasn't much different from Molly Maid's: a long day, starting at 7 a.m. and finishing by 5. Or 6. Or 7 p.m.

"Are you mentally prepared for cleaning?" When I nodded, Nariman said he would pay me $9 an hour until I gained experience. After a few weeks, he would put me on salary — $600 every two weeks. To earn that, I would have to work Saturdays, but I would get one weekday off every other week.

"How are you with dogs and cats?" he asked.

I hesitated, and he quickly added, "We're not looking at pit bulls or anything."

I took the job. In fact, I'm allergic to cats. Did I mention I'm also allergic to dust? But I didn't tell Nariman that, either.

Two days later, I start working. It seems every house I clean has pets, several of them, and all of them shed. At a high-rise condo, with two cats in residence, the floors are adrift with hair and dust. The fur balls are so thick and tufty they look like grey snowdrifts.

I begin to sneeze. My eyes turn red and itchy. I look, and feel, like I have the flu. At the next home, thankfully, the absentee owner has locked the dog in a room.

The third and final clean is an elegant townhouse in a Cabbagetown alleyway. The owner works in film and has exquisite taste in art. His adult daughter works in advertising. They are both out, but have left the television on for their small dog, tuned to Animal Planet.

I'm almost finished mopping the pale oak floor when I spot a little pile of turds at the entrance to the den. Gingerly, I pick them up. The turds are light and dry. They do not smell. They must be at least two days old. My partner says the owners knew we were coming, and left them for us.

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