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Justice for silent frontline cleaners

Frontline cleaners are crucial in keeping the city clean during the pandemic.

Carrying a blue cart of buckets and brooms, Luke Ching Chin-wai, 50, was supposed to clean the left-wing of Tai Wai MTR station. It is a two-storey building that includes four railways of the Tuen Ma and East Rail Lines, with stores on the ground floor. 

In addition to 11 rubbish bins, Ching is also responsible for cleaning the advertising lightboxes, handrails and gates, as well as the train area, all within two hours. 

Ching is drenched in sweat already before he’s even finished half of his duty, and he has yet to take a break. 

“What a nuisance to be sweaty,” he said while cleaning the entrance gate.

Cleaning workers like Ching have to maintain the hygiene in areas such as public toilets and refuse collection rooms. However, frontline cleaners are not always well equipped, especially during the pandemic. They risk their health to earn meagre salaries, and their rights and welfare are often barely protected. 

But Ching is also a conceptual artist and a labour activist. He discovered the hidden welfare problems of cleaning workers working for the Mass Transit Railway after going undercover since November last year.

Cleaners work under the MTR Corporation are outsourced to ISS Facilities Service Limited and Winson Cleaning Service Company Limited through tendering, according to the company’s website. Suppliers listed the business details on the tendering documents for MTRC to choose from, including the salary for the cleaners. 

The number of face masks dispensed is equivalent to the number of working days, but it is far from enough. “One is needed before the break, a new one is needed after that, and should be changed after work,” explained Ching. A minimum of three face masks are needed for an eight-hour shift. 

Hygiene work in an MTR station is not limited to wiping handrails and entrance gates, but also toilet disinfection and rubbish collection. Yet there is a shortage of basic personal protective equipment, let alone face shields and thick gloves that prevent janitors from being exposed to contaminated water and chemicals. 

Each worker only gets two pairs of gloves a month. Face shields are only available if they have to clean up vomit.

The lack of guidelines or standards in cleaning practice exposes workers to high-risk conditions. They have nothing more than a bucket of diluted chlorine and a towel to clean most of the MTR facilities. “I don’t know how to clean them, how often to clean them, and to what extent,” said Ching in confusion. He and his colleagues were never taught about the chemicals, and the proper procedure to clean up puke.

Cleaning workers do not feel safe using harmful chemicals at work, without any training.

Since 2019, MTRC cleaners have been getting HK$37.5 an hour. Cleaners employed by the Housing Department and Food and Environmental Hygiene Department get HK$44.5 and HK$48.4 an hour respectively, after the cleaning service outsourcing reform in 2019, according to the research by the Cleaning Workers Union

“We have been talking about the unfairness brought by the outsourcing system since day one,” said Ching. He is expecting a raise to HK$50 an hour, equivalent to the average monthly salary of a general cleaning worker of HK$50.7, according to the Quarterly Report of Wage and Payroll Statistics (Sep 2021)

“We are so stressed every day, worrying about whether we will be infected,” said Ching. There is neither arrangement nor compensation if they catch Covid in the workplace or if they are under mandatory quarantine that can last for weeks. There is no paid leave for vaccination either.

Although the government has authorise compulsory quarantine order as a reasonable document for sick days since Feb. 8, some part-time workers like the MTR cleaners are not included, as not all of them fit the 418 provision, in which employers enjoy the paid leave only if they work at least 18 hours a week, and at least four weeks a month. 

Ching exposed the poor treatment of cleaning workers in a press conference on Dec. 15 last year. He called for better pay and safer working conditions. The MTRC suspended his job for a week right after the conference, a few hours prior to the night shift Ching was supposed to work on. 

The MTRC’s management would not agree to an in-person meeting with the cleaning workers, nor did they address the employees directly. In fact, nothing much changed after the submission of a public letter to the MTRC on Dec. 23. The only change was that  cleaning workers no longer needed to deliver meals to the station monitors. 

“This pair of gloves is both right-handed,” one worker says while wiping the gate with diluted chlorine, because there was no left-handed glove to replace the torn one.

Cleaning workers still need to ask for extra face masks  because the company does not prepare any spares. “That is baffling,” said Ching. The company’s policies do not include any occupational safety and health standards.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Ordinance, employers are obligated to guarantee a safe and healthy workplace, plus training and supervision should also be provided.

“But who would dare to ask for more resources under this top down management system?” Ching asked.

After Ching revealed his identity, he was assigned to fewer and less unpleasant duties, such as switching from toilet cleaning to lobby cleaning. Winson also started handing out face shields to Ching after he told his foreman about his interview with The Young Reporter.

“I don’t know whether my colleagues receive the same things as me,” said Ching. Some of his old friends were asked by MTRC staff to keep their distance from him. 

Ching has since tailored himself a protective gown out of black rubbish bags when he cleans toilets, so that he doesn’t get splashed with toilet water. It is also useful while changing rubbish bags because unwrapped face masks and unfinished drinks are potential sources of viruses. 

Ching’s self-styled protective gown.

“See the slogan on my back?” Ching said. “‘We serve you’, but it is clear now who we are really serving.” They are keeping the place clean for the people, not the company. 

On Jan. 28, the MTRC sent a mass email to the news media about HK$20 million to be given to cleaning workers, based on the cleanliness of terminals as determined by passengers and regulators. That enraged Ching. 

“The rating system is not supporting the cleaning work, but adding to the stress of my colleagues,” said Ching. “You are effectively shifting all the blame for keeping the station clean onto us! Intensifying our job strain!” Ching wrote on his social media out of rage following the announcement of the new policy. 

The rating system is scheduled to be effective from February. Ching and Joe Wong Nai-yuen, chairperson of the Cleaning Service Industry Workers Union, organised a silent protest on Feb. 3 where Ching works, aspiring to bring the frontline workers to the fore. 

Ching holds a silent protest dressed in a rubbish bag, holding a towel that reads “Good Health”.

Holding a towel with the words “Good Health”, Ching held a silent protest at Tai Wai Station, hoping to raise awareness on the health of cleaning workers. “The MTR has been emphasising on disinfecting stations, thus multiplying our workload, but they never mention any protection for us,” he said. 

“The MTR management can’t even see the importance of being healthy as a human,” he added. 

The towel is then replaced by a splitted photo of him and Frank Chan-fan, the Secretary for Transport and Housing of Hong Kong. Ching wrote a letter to Chan regarding the poor working conditions earlier, but received no reply.

The government holds 74.8% of shares in the MTR Corporation, and therefore has a say in the MTR’s decisions, according to investor’s information on the rail giant’s website. “The government is in charge of the company, and they know we are underpaid,” said Ching.

Joe Wong holds Lunar New Year style couplets that reads “Cleaning workers risk their health under pandemic on the third day of Lunar New Year. The rating system with subsidy is the wrong focus”.

“What we truly want is improvement in wages, rather than a system of reward and punishment,” said Wong. 

The anti-epidemic fund does not subject cleaning workers to any ratings or examination, it is unacceptable that the MTR Corporation responded to the salary reform with a rating system. “They are simply not focusing on the problem,” Wong said.

A monthly allowance of HK$5000 will be available to the frontline cleansing staff from the sixth round of anti-epidemic funds, according to the government's announcement. However, cleaners working for public transportation premises like MTR stations and bus stops, and also cleaners working at public hospitals managed by the Hospital Authority, are excluded from the program, who are neither regarded as engaged in government service nor private buildings.

Winson, the name of the cleaning service company on the uniform is covered by masking tape. “The workers tried to uphold the company's reputation amid the dispute, but it is not known if the firm would protect the employees in return,” says Wong.

On the third day of the Lunar New Year, Ching and Wong held a silent protest at Tai Wai station to highlight the plight of the cleaning workers. Worshippers heading to Che Kung Temple near the station stopped and stared.

“Striking at the MTR is useless. It is the problem of the outsourced company,” murmured a passenger walking past Ching. 

“I thought he is promoting the idea of keeping the station clean and hygienic,” said another passenger.

“Commodities are expensive these days, even raising the salary a bit is better than nothing,” she added.

Police officers keep an eye on Ching during this protest at Tai Wai station.
Police officers check Ching’s identity card at Tai Wai station.

After the protest in Tai Wai station, Ching and Wong headed to the MTRC Headquarters Building at Kowloon Bay for the second meeting with a spokesperson. 

Ching was hoping for direct conversations between the company and the union, but the MTRC disappointed them. 

“They never respond to our demands directly, even after the media received their letters about the rating system, we got nothing,” said Ching. “This is too over, this is so wrong.”

Ching and the unions hand over the public letter to the representative from the MTRC.

The MTRC told The Young Reporter that the company has been asking for a stable supply of cleaning materials from the Winson. “The company absolutely values the health of cleaners and commissioners,” the company said in an email to The Young Reporter. 

According to HK01, at least two cleaners from Kwai Chung Estate were infected with Covid as of Jan. 25. At least three cleaners from the MTRC have been infected, according to Hong Kong Economic Times. Ching said the public rarely questions the reason why they are infected. “The public doesn’t value the work of cleansing workers, and do whatever they want once they have paid for the service,” he said. 

There is still a long way to go to improve the treatment of cleaning workers, as there is still a shortage of protective equipment. Leung Tsz-yan, the organiser of the Cleaning Workers Union, has come across cleaning workers who say three masks a day is simply not enough.

“They give you new masks while blaming you for getting more,” said Leung. “It is like begging for what we are supposed to have.”

Workload piles up while the pandemic goes viral, the frontline workers are subjected to stricter rules of cleaning, according to the cleaners approached by Leung. The cleaners also reported that the ban of indoor dining after six o’clock created unprecedented massive amounts of disposable utensils. More often, the workers enter the refuse collection chambers where viruses are adhered, they have to endure higher risk, they said.

Currently, Covid is not listed as an occupational disease under ​​the Employee’s Compensation Ordinance, therefore there is no compensation for infected workers. 

Asked if Covid would be regarded as an occupational disease, the Labour Department told The Young Reporter through email that infection is possible in any places, making Covid difficult to be listed as a common disease specific to certain occupations. “It is difficult to assert that someone is infected in the workplace only by considering what they work for,” said the department in the email. They promised a follow up on any tendency for workplace-related infection. 

However, since quarantine requirements may result in workers losing half of their monthly salaries, Leung believes that the government should compensate them for such loss. 

“You can’t imagine how much pressure they tolerate financially and mentally,” she said. 

Leung also accused the government of not doing it’s part in finding out the brutal conditions the workers face.

“The foreman knew who was being surveyed by the governmental officers, so they stopped the cleaners from speaking the truth,” said Leung. 

She believes that the welfare of cleaners will not improve unless the outsourcing system is changed so that the outsourced companies don’t try to increase their profits while abusing workers. “The government should take the responsibility of improving the working conditions,” said Leung.  

Weeks have passed since the second public letter was handed to the MTRC, but so far, it has not responded to the union’s enquiries. Wong, though, believes the MTRC is eager to solve the problem. “We will not stop fighting for the rights of cleaning workers,” he said.

《The Young Reporter》

The Young Reporter (TYR) started as a newspaper in 1969. Today, it is published across multiple media platforms and updated constantly to bring the latest news and analyses to its readers.


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