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THE RULES: NO RADIO. NO EATING. NO TALKING. NO LAUGHING. AND NEVER USE A CLIENT'S WASHROOM

My first day on the job, the sun hasn't risen when I join a dozen other maids at a Coffee Time in Scarborough, Ont. Holly, a middle-aged woman with a blond Farrah Fawcett-style mane, orders breakfast at the counter. (All names have been changed).

"A breakfast bagel -- cheese, bacon, fried egg. And two coffees," she says. Another maid orders a cheese bagel and hot chocolate.

I'm a bit envious, and puzzled. I've done the math. At $9 an hour, even coffee is a luxury. I would like to avoid visiting a food bank or dumpster-diving this month with my sons, Ben, 15, and Sam, 12. So I ate before I came, and I've packed a lunch and a bottle of water (tap, of course).

This fluorescent-lit coffee shop, with its scratchy Muzak and plastic tables, is the impromptu "office" of a cleaning company I'll call Maid-It-Up Maids. (I called it Metro Maids last week, but, oops, there really is a Metro Maids.) Our day starts in darkness when we gather here at 7 a.m. It ends in darkness 11 or 12 hours later when we finish our last clean.

Holly splits her stuffed breakfast bagel with her daughter, Tassie, 20, another maid. Tina, a scrawny thirtysomething from Nova Scotia, is broke, so she isn't buying anything.

Tina's common-law husband is in Barrie, Ont., about an hour's drive north of Toronto. I ask what he's doing up there.

"Time," she says with a cackle. She explains that he went a little crazy one day, the cops showed up and, uh-oh, they shouldn't have had those marijuana plants in the house "for medicinal purposes."

She's trying to quit smoking. She wears a nicotine patch that costs $37 a week. Everyone else keeps ducking outside to smoke.

That includes Pat, 20, who has pasty skin and lank brown hair caught in a ponytail. She's five months pregnant.

Cigarettes cost $7.50 a pack. Budgeting is a skill I absorbed from my educated, successful parents. So I figure $9 an hour equals a gross monthly income of $1,368 in February. After $750 rent for my basement apartment, I'm left with $7.36 per person a day for myself, Ben and Sam. (For now, I'm assuming I would get a low-income tax refund and I'm not factoring in federal child subsidies, which I'll discuss next week.) Pat, I'll later find out, never got to learn such skills. Her mom had six kids with three different husbands, and now lives on welfare.

At 7:30, the owner, a man named Nariman, walks in with great dignity. He distributes keys, $10 bills for gas and Ziploc bags of dog biscuits for the homes with pets. The maids cluster around, smiling, slightly wary.

Toby, 20, an aboriginal maid, chews a plain bagel at her own table, and buries her nose in one of the free daily newspapers. A skinny dropout with extremely plucked brows, she bums a smoke from another maid. When the others have dispersed, she quietly hits up Nariman for a $30 advance. He hesitates for a second, then agrees without a fuss. I can see he's a kind man.

Nariman introduces me, but no one pays much attention. Instead, the maids scan the work orders. "That house is 5,000 square feet and it's always filthy," Pat whines.

Each day, we're organized into different teams. I'm paired with Maggie, an older maid from Newfoundland who gives me an encouraging grin.

Before each team sets out, I complete some rudimentary paperwork. Nariman says I'll need a police check -- all his employees are bonded and insured. He also asks if I have a driver's licence.

I've entered a parallel universe. Where I come from, everyone drives. In this new world, maids don't drive. (Their male drivers don't clean; they sit in the cars and nag the maids to hurry up.) Besides Holly, who can't clean any more after operations on both wrists to alleviate carpal tunnel syndrome, only one maid can drive. Until I show up.

"Can you read a Perly's?" Nariman asks.

Another odd question. Who can't read a map book? Some of my fellow maids, it turns out, don't know south from north. When I nod, Nariman beams in relief.

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