TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — Spic & Span is a cleaning firm with a difference, placing social outreach at the core of its operations.
The company hires disadvantaged workers that face difficulties securing and sustaining employment. Not only does it offer stable jobs in the cleaning industry, it also provides a close support network in cooperation with over 60 voluntary organizations, and trains employees beyond cleaning to mobilize them into more white-collar fields of work.
Taiwan News spoke to the company founder Benjamin Chua, who received a Social Progress award for Spic & Span at this year’s Asia Pacific Social Enterprise Summit (APSES) in Kaohsiung.
How did Spic & Span first begin?
I started my professional career in the civil service as an economist, and later joined a venture capital firm. On a random day out of the blue, one of my friends called me and said there were some workers in Singapore that had been retrenched from the hospitality industry, and asked if we could do something about it.
At the time, I didn't think it was going to be a business, but we started servicing apartments in the financial district. Over a period of months, clients started asking what else we could provide, so we asked what else they needed. We started providing things like concierge services, guest management, airport transport—things more related to hospitality.
We found we had the skeleton of a company, we had the muscles, but we wanted to have the heart and the soul. So we started hiring people from disadvantaged backgrounds, including ex-offenders, people with disabilities (physical and intellectual), single parents, the homeless, and people with mental health conditions.
Today we are working with more than 60 voluntary organizations across Singapore to provide good jobs to marginalized people.
Why are Spic & Span and other related initiatives necessary in Singapore?
A hidden group exists that needs to be reintegrated into society. There will always be pockets that no government—however perfect—can adequately address. When people fall through the gaps, it's up to corporations, it's up to social enterprises to say, “Look, we know that you may have made a mistake in the past and you’ve hit hard times. Let us give you a helping hand as we climb up ourselves.”
The whole objective of Spic & Span is to uplift those around us as we grow the company. We’ve tried to make our hiring policies as inclusive as possible, to give as many chances as we can. We don't always look at what a person has done before, we look to what the person can do for the company.
One of the company's cleaning teams. (Photo: Spic & Span)
What kind of challenges do your employees face in the job market?
Different groups have different challenges. There are some things that might make it difficult for ex-offenders to find jobs—tattoos for example. People think the capabilities of those with intellectual disabilities are not up to standard. For single parents, its working times and flexibility.
It happens at all different levels of society, too. I heard from one of the social service organizations catering to the physically disabled that a business development director was retrenched and wasn't able to find a job. When I spoke to him during an interview, I asked what was holding him back and he said that because he is reaching 50 years old, no one wants to hire him. So it's not just about cleaners, administration and entry level stuff, we’re talking about all ranks of society.
What infrastructure does Spic & Span employ to support its diverse range of workers?
The social support system is the most important thing. We are not experts in all social causes; we may learn how to deal with ex-offenders or people with disabilities at some point, but not to the level of councilors or job coaches. This is why we partner with over 60 voluntary organizations. Only with these social support systems in place, by working to ensure top management in voluntary organizations buy into what we do, are we able to support the workers. Not only in terms of job placement, but job retention, job sustainability and career progression.
What kind of voluntary organizations do you work with?
The Yellow Ribbon Project is one of the organizations we work with. For ex-offenders, there's a very interesting challenge we face. They may have anger management problems because they come from prison, they may be a bit rougher and more rowdy. Yellow Ribbon has helped us develop a conflict management system. We equip our supervisors with mediation skills to resolve issues at the ground level without “outsourcing” problems to social workers or management.
The Yellow Ribbon Project has a few organizations as part of its cause, working with people from prison all the way to the outside. There are cooperatives, associations that deal specifically with narcotics etc.
What services, other than cleaning, does Spic & Span offer?
90 percent of of revenue comes from commercial cleaning, so rather than spread ourselves too thin, we have decided to move vertically within the sector. Over the past few years, we have been conducting research and development into cleaning technology. We are proud to announce that we have developed our own proprietary self-cleaning solutions that not only sanitize a property, but keep it clean for up to six months.
Transitioning from a cleaning company to a cleaning tech company increases the career opportunities for our workers. We’ve been able to redesign jobs and transform the nature of them from blue collar to specialist-tier jobs. We have started training cleaning tech specialists, with many already in service performing cleaning tech operations.
The company trains its employees to use specialist cleaning technologies. (Photo: Spic & Span)
Can you explain the technology in a little more depth?
What we have developed is an active self-cleaning solution. Regular cleaning may kill 99 percent of bacteria in an environment, but new bacteria is constantly introduced. Our solution continuously kills the bacteria for a period of six months.
It has become a disruptor in the market, because it allows childcare centers, for example, where there is fear of hand, foot and mouth disease outbreaks, to constantly remain clean without using a lot of chemicals. It reduces the operational costs and the cost of supplies.
We also conduct quality controls to further assure our clients. Before cleaners come in, we swab places to understand how much bacteria there is. Things are done more scientifically, more professionally.
Workers, of course, need to be trained not only in terms of product knowledge but also in terms of safety, how to put on the equipment, protection, and how to use our application tools. We are using things like static guns, bio-foggers and bacteria detectors, all of which require a higher degree of training and specialization.
Why did you participate in the 2019 APSES?
We have plans to regionalize our products at the Asia Pacific level, so there’s the business aspect. More importantly, however, we are still new players in the industry and we need to learn. We need to know how the big players think and how they make a difference so we can work towards that goal ourselves.
Commitment to improving the lives of disadvantaged citizens won Spic & Span a Social Progress award at the 2019 APSES. (Photo: Spic & Span)