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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Here's a fun fact. At least Molly Maids considers this a "fun fact:" Since its founding in Mississauga , Ont., in 1979, its maids have cleaned baseboards equal in length to the Trans-Canada Highway -- 225 times over. Ha, ha.

The maid industry is booming. In 1965, women averaged 30 hours a week of housework. Today, it's less than half that, in part because so many women work outside the home. Men haven't picked up the slack. Instead, that most despised of domestic chores is now outsourced.

No one in Canada tracks the industry. In the United States, cleaning-service revenues are projected to grow 5.5 per cent annually through 2009 to $60-billion. In Canada, the 411 on-line listing shows 80 Toronto maid companies, almost double the number in the Yellow Pages a decade earlier.

Maid service, sold by the hour, is now accessible to the vast middle class. The employees work below the radar, without breaks or benefits, for long hours and low pay. Without angst, fanfare or celebrity sing-a-thons, the homes and hearths of ordinary Canadians have become the factory floors of the invisible working poor.

I'm not talking about freelancers, the entrepreneurial cleaners from say, Portugal, the Philippines, Jamaica or Canada itself. They work alone, are paid cash and are treated, as so many of my friends tell me, "like part of the family." They never call themselves maids.

That group is dominated by immigrants. They are self-starters, sometimes well-educated, who came here seeking a better life. At maid services like Maid-It-Up, the cleaners are often white and Canadian-born, and have abbreviated educations and limited skills. "No immigrant would do this," the daughter of Maid-It-Up's owner tells me. "They're too ambitious."

At Maid-It-Up, my co-workers do call themselves maids, with all the self-abnegation that implies. 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.

Maggie informs me of a dizzying array of rules to follow when the client is home -- and even when they're not. "There sometimes are video cameras," she warns. No smoking in the house, of course, but not even outside on the sidewalk in front. No swearing. No switching on the television or radio. No eating, either. So on grey, frozen winter days, we dine on your driveway. We chew a sandwich on the sidewalk. We picnic in parking garages.

We also must remove our shoes. Yet we're not supposed to go barefoot, either, even when washing shower stalls. Clients don't want such intimacy. So the first day, my socks are soaked with crud. After that, I carry plastic flip-flops, but I'm the only one who does. Maggie wears three pairs of socks, and as one set gets disgusting, she peels off a layer.

No talking in earshot of the client. And -- this is true -- we can't laugh, either. "Clients call the office and report us," Maggie warns.

No drinking anything. Well, no one explicitly says I can't have water. But I do notice all month long I'm the only maid who totes a plastic water bottle. Which brings me to peeing.

That's not encouraged, either. Once, someone at Maid-It-Up defecated in a toilet -- and forgot to flush. The client was shocked, appalled. She called the office, and cancelled all future business. That's what it's like to be an untouchable. You clean up their poop. But, oh, the trauma if they catch a glimpse of yours.

A client in an otherwise immaculate home left me an overflowing toilet -- soaked tissues, floating turds and urine. By then, I was inured to human waste. What irritated me was the time I wasted rooting around her laundry room for a plunger.

That's the beauty of piecework. It's Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times, with a schedule instead of an assembly line. The client and the company decide on time and price. No matter what the size or the filth-and-clutter quotient, we must speed-clean the house in the prescribed time. And then we must battle Toronto traffic to hurry to the next one. We cannot ever leave dirt behind.

At least Maid-It-Up doesn't copy Merry Maids' mantra: "Our maids clean floors the old-fashioned way -- on our hands and knees."

Maggie is Maid-It-Up's best. I call her Magnificent Maggie. She will pull the hair out of your hairbrush. She will refold the cloth napkins jammed in your kitchen drawer. She will actually pick the rotting leaves off a bouquet of flowers, scrub the vase and change the water. She made me do that once. She's a patient teacher too. She shows me how to clean a stove, dismantle a faucet to scrape away scum and fold a fitted sheet into a neat square.

A faded beauty in her 50s with a brown ponytail, Maggie actually sings softly while she works, when the client isn't home. (The ponytail is the no-fuss hairdo of choice for maids. Later, I'll understand how sensible that is when I bend over to wash my first toilet.) She exclaims, "Cool!" under virtually any circumstance, such as when Nariman says she has to train me. On the first day, she thoughtfully buys me yellow rubber gloves. She pays out of her own pocket, and doesn't request a receipt. She also takes the dirty rags home every night, rising at 5 a.m. to wash them in the laundromat, at $1.50 a load. She never asks Nariman for reimbursement.

"He would give me the money if I asked. He's very reasonable. But I never ask," she says.

Maggie weighs just 127 pounds, and is one of the few maids who wears the blue V-necked uniform. She tries to carry everything: the rags, paper towels, buckets, mops, the heavy container of sprays and cleansers, and the duffel bag holding our blue Dirt Devil vacuum, which, with attachments, weighs 40 pounds alone.

On the first day, Nariman drops us off at a monster home in Thornhill in the north end of Toronto. Many of our customers are nouveau riche in the suburbs, or young professionals downtown. We have none in Toronto's Bridle Path, and only one in Rosedale. Old money and the very rich don't hire agencies.

Our Thornhill client has one child, but her house has five bedrooms, four bathrooms, a study, a family room, a living room, a dining room, a giant kitchen and a massive foyer. From 1991 to 2005, the average house size in Canada increased 27 per cent, to 1,900 square feet from 1,500 square feet. Molly Maid, the industry leader, notes the average time required to clean a home has increased since its founding 27 years ago, because of a "building boom of larger homes with unprecedented numbers of bathrooms."

At the Thornhill monster, Maggie says we have to do several loads of laundry, so we begin by stripping the beds. It's my first encounter with 21st-century conspicuous consumption: 14 useless, little polyester pillows of various shapes and sizes piled on top. The little boy's bed is no better. He has nine Ralph Lauren pillows on his.

When we finish the beds, I need to pee. Maggie points me to the child's en suite. I go in, and recoil. The kid hasn't flushed. The toilet seat is sprayed with urine, some of it still wet, some of it dried rivulets. He's 11. No one's taught him to lift the seat, or flush because he has his own bathroom and, magically, we will be by each week to clean it.

By month's end, a pattern will emerge. The most slovenly homes belong to young professionals, especially, for some reason, lawyers. I suspect they were raised in families like this kid's, where someone else always did the housework.

"I can start the house," Maggie says when I re-emerge, without having peed. "Can you iron?" I find this an odd question, like, can you drive? You just plug in the iron and push.

I'm alone in a closet the size of a bedroom. In fact, it was a bedroom, now transformed, in this child-scarce home, into a walk-in closet. Although the client is home, she doesn't talk to me. That is common among people who hire maid services. They're not interested in a relationship.

Instead, the client has left written instructions on little yellow sticky papers stuck to three small mountains of ironing. 1. "Iron for sure this pile. Must do." 2. "Iron if time allows" 3. "Fold and iron IF TIME ALLOWS." I snort at the things she wants ironed: jeans, T-shirts, cotton turtlenecks, sweatsuits, even a Hockey Night in Canada sweatshirt. But Maggie admonishes me: If the client wants ironing, I iron.

This reminds me of another stupid job I performed when I worked, briefly, at the Beijing No. 1 Machine Tool Factory during the Cultural Revolution. It was 1972. I was a misguided Montreal Maoist. My revolutionary task: counting the number of screws in a whole stack of boxes.

Ironing is like counting screws. I'm so bored, I read the labels. The husband's waistband is 42 inches. His inseam is 30 inches. I try to imagine his shape, and can only see a blimp. I grow irritable as I notice all their clothes, even the child's, are XL and XXL. I deeply resent ironing extra acreage.

Over the next month, another pattern will emerge. I will begin to hate many clients sight unseen. I hate them if they line their bathtub rim with 28 bottles of shampoo and pomades that I must remove, wipe and replace. I hate them if they own a heavy Tempur memory-foam mattress that hurts my wrists when I change the sheets.

Maggie is not the hateful type. I can hear her singing the refrain from Yellow Submarine. She loves cleaning. She gets excited about the smell of Lavender Clean Pine-Sol. She waves a bottle under my nose and wants me to sniff it too. I decline. It contains alkyl alcohol ethoxylates and sodium xylene sulfonate. According to the fine print, if you ingest any or splash it in your eyes, call a poison-control centre immediately.

We're booked for four hours, at $171. After two hours, I'm only midway through t he second pile of ironing. After three hours, I have seven items left. There are 51 items in all, including sheets and pillowcases, which means it costs the client $1.25 per item.

I'm hungry, I'm thirsty and my legs ache. I still have to pee. I don't want to sully the boy's en suite, which Maggie has finished polishing. So I find her mopping in the main hallway and ask, sotto voce, what to do. With the client in the study, a few feet away, Maggie motions me into the powder room. To mask the sounds of my bodily functions, she switches on the vacuum cleaner.

On my second day, I kiss a slumbering Sam in the darkness. I poke Ben, who is prone to sleep until 2 p.m. They'll both sleep in until my husband, Norman, arrives to haul them out of bed and drive them back to their real lives and their real school.

Today, the minimum wage goes up -- by 30 cents. It's now $7.75 instead of $7.45. But at Coffee Time, no one's cheering. The big fat increase doesn't affect them, and it doesn't affect me, either. I'm getting $9 an hour until Nariman deems me to be "trained."

Most of the others are already on a fixed guaranteed salary: $300 a week for 5½ days.

"Sometimes there's no work. The girls have to pay their bills," says Nariman, who promises that if I do well, I'll eventually be put on salary too.

The other maids prefer the security. They think the $300 salary is a good thing. I do not. Nariman is paying them for a 38-hour week at 14 cents an hour above minimum wage. But that counts only the hours their mops hit the floor. (A fellow reporter thought that was fair until I put it in his terms: Maybe journalists should only be paid for an hour's work a day -- a 15-minute press conference, and the 45 minutes it takes to write it up.)

If you consider travel is an inherent part of an agency maid's job, and we are actually working 60-plus hours a week, my salaried co-workers are making just $5 an hour. I mention this to another maid. She says it's more than the $250 a week she made as a nanny. Then I point out she's not much ahead because she's working an extra half-day a week. She's silent.

But mostly we don't discuss money. Instead, everyone bops to Angel of the Morning, the Shaggy CD booming on the car stereo.

Everyone is smoking, except me. When the music stops, Pat, the pregnant maid, reads aloud some jokes from a freebie newspaper: "A young man is starting his first day of work at a supermarket. The manager hands him a broom and tells him to sweep out the store. 'Don't you know I'm a university graduate?' says the indignant young man. 'Oh, sorry,' says the manager. 'I'll show you how to sweep.' " All the maids guffaw.

Holly drops Maggie and me at a Scarborough townhouse. We have two hours to get through four storeys, three bathrooms, a den, a laundry room, kitchen, dining room, living room, upstairs family room, master bedroom and the daughter's room. We work fast, and very hard.

The client, who works at the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, is having guests the next day. She especially requests a sparkling kitchen. The client arrives home as Maggie, on her hands and knees, is scrubbing years of dirt from the grouting on the old kitchen floor.

I'm practising being deferential, so I ask the client to inspect the house. She does, and pronounces herself satisfied. We leave happily, and hump our equipment a respectful distance from the house so Maggie can have a quick smoke before Nariman picks us up. As a courtesy, we even carry a sack of her garbage to the corner depot.

Suddenly, the woman is calling us back. Maggie balances her cigarette on the edge of the bucket and runs back. She returns, crushed. The client says someone scratched her coffee table. She wants money or her coffee table refinished -- before tomorrow.

I'm steamed. I know she dusted the coffee table and didn't harm it. I vacuumed around it, and just happened to be taking mental notes. I rattle off the details: The coffee table was wood, stained black, rectangular with rounded corners. Atop was a metal dragon, flanked by two dollar-store blue-and-white china jars filled with unlit white candles. There was NO scratch.

Maggie is still distressed. Our job security depends on the absence of client complaints. Maggie uses her company-issued cellphone to warn Nariman of trouble. The client has already called the office.

He arrives a few moments later. "We have had trouble from her before," he says calmly. "She is just trying to get money from us."

We're relieved, but at the next two cleans, Maggie stops singing Yellow Submarine. The bounce dies from her step. As for me, I start hating clients in general.

The next morning at Coffee Time, I tell the other maids what happened. Tassie says the same client once complained when she hadn't washed the bathtub. "I'll tell you what I wouldn't do," Tassie snaps. "I wouldn't pick her daughter's bloody panties out of the bathtub. We don't have to touch underwear."

The other maids nod. "Yes," says Maggie quietly.

"We don't have to touch underwear," someone repeats.

On Day 3, I'm promoted to driver. It's amazing Nariman trusts me to drive one of his cars so soon. Now I'll earn $12.50 more a day for driving. I won't have to buy a bus pass for $99.75. And he'll cover the gas. When I get a $20 parking ticket cleaning in suburban Etobicoke -- Etobicoke! -- he charitably covers the fine without comment.

Life becomes infinitely easier. Because I get to take the car home, I can drive to No Frills for groceries. I can sleep until 6 a.m. because now I can get to Coffee Time in 10 minutes.

One morning, I park in front of the convenience store where Maggie bought my rubber gloves. The owner, a Korean immigrant, considers that his designated parking space. He comes out to scream at me. "You park there, I get no customers. I call police."

"We buy things from you," I say weakly.

"I call police," he screams.

Maggie, who is standing outside smoking, urges me to move the car. But the real me isn't very maid-like. And the real me is confident the cops would never respond to a silly call like that. The man is yelling at me because, although I may be his customer, more importantly I'm a maid. And thus in the hierarchy of the down and out, I'm way, way down.

The real me, however, ignores him. I walk, head high, back into Coffee Time. Maggie is anxious, but the other maids applaud.

I'm paid for my first day soon after. To my surprise, Nariman pays me $10 an hour, not $9. I thank him profusely, and begin to relax a bit. I relax even more when I begin earning a driver's bonus. I calculate I'm netting a comfortable $92 a day. I can afford orange juice for the kids. Sam even goes to the movies, once.

After two weeks on the job, I get my first full paycheque. I stare at the numbers in shock. In fact, I've been earning only about $60 a day. Nariman must have assumed that, like all the other maids, I want security. He has decided I'm trustworthy and reliable. So, without a word to me and as he had initially promised -- but far earlier than I had expected -- he put me on salary as of Day 2.

Such is the uncertainty of a minimum-wage life. Maid-like, however, I say nothing.

I do the math all over again. After rent and federal taxes, I'm left with about $25 a day. It's $1 more per person than I figured before I started the job, which is good. But it's still less than I have been budgeting after I believed I was getting $10 an hour. I can probably stretch it to cover food, but there will be no more movies for Sam. I guess I'm a bad mother; I now need the money for antihistamine pills for my cat and dust allergies.

On this bitter morning, the weather is icy. I have another 12-hour day ahead of me, driving on slippery roads and mopping filthy floors. I scan the backlit wall menu at Coffee Time. I'm dying for a cup of swill. But I pass.

What makes a maid's favourite house?

No black-lacquered furniture (it's a dust magnet)

No Venetian blinds

No glass coffee tables

No mirrored doors

No mirrored backsplash in the kitchen

No glass-enclosed showers

No sunken bathtubs

No pets, except goldfish

No more than three bathrooms

No more than one kitchen

No fingerprint-friendly stainless steel appliances

Clients who cover their food when microwaving

Clients who use one bottle of shampoo at a time

Clients who are bald

Sweat equity

What's the weirdest thing about having worked as a maid and now being dropped back into my regular life? Watching others clean. As I wrote this week's instalment, a team from Molly Maids was vacuuming right behind me. I hired them to clean my house, to see how their technique differs from Maid-It-Up's. It was an odd experience.

I offered tea, coffee, lunch, but they declined.

Liz and Katie are white and Canadian-born. They travel in a pink-and-blue company car and wear the Molly Maid uniform: pink-striped blouse and navy pants. I was their third -- and last -- clean of the day. The day before, they had five houses, and normally they have six. I can't imagine doing six. The only time I did four houses, I nearly broke down.

They kept their shoes on. Other than that, the technique was similar. They were fast, and didn't talk much except to exclaim over my large living room. "I wish I had a living room like that," sighed Katie.

They were not bad, but they were nowhere as good as Maid-It-Up. We would never forget to wipe a kitchen counter or the inside of a microwave. My kitchen floor was dirty, after they mopped it. And in one bathroom they left the waste basket inside the laundry hamper and the scale on top of the toilet.

But I was sympathetic. My house is big. They had been cleaning since 8 a.m., and one of them had only two Jamaican patties for lunch. I felt terrible when I heard Liz groaning in the basement -- probably from washing my stairs.

The bill for two hours came to $120, including tax. I tipped them each $10. It's peanuts. As a Molly Maid reject -- I was interviewed but never got the job -- I know they only get "commissions." The driver will get 20 per cent, or $24, and the others will get 18 per cent, or $21.60. I also know, at least according to the franchise that interviewed me, that in the case of a traffic accident the driver must pay the $1,000 deductible.

As they left, I noticed an old cut on one woman's arm. From cleaning? She nodded. Then she showed me the bruises on both arms. "We're always banging into things."

***

LAST WEEK: Finding a minimum-wage job isn't as easy as you might expect. The search for work.

NEXT WEEK: Jan shops for $1 meal deals at No Frills, while her sons mooch dinners at friends' houses. The reality of low-income living.

WEEK 4: Vacuums break, co-workers break down and a few kind words make the maids want to clean every bit of dirt in gratitude. The toll on her co-workers.

WEEK 5: Jan quits, and resists her urge to start cleaning friends' grouting. The last day at work

APOLOGY

The Globe and Mail and Jan Wong did not intend to identify the owners of a Thornhill home whose home was described in the Maid for a Month series in 2006, and apologizes for any harm that may have been caused by the publication of the article to Steven, Georgina and Angelo Nitsopoulos.

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