By Jiajing Bi, Intern, International Labor Rights Forum
In March, a female sanitation worker in Yongkang City, a wealthy center for hardware manufacturing in
Zhejiang Province, was beaten so severely she was sent to the hospital. The young man who beat her did so simply because he believed that she intended to bring him bad luck by cleaning near his luxury car and leaning her broom against it. This occurred just one month after the Zhejiang Provincial People’s Government issued a document entitled, “Opinions Regarding Further Improving the Living and Working Conditions of Sanitation Workers to Advance the Undertaking of Environment Sanitation,” which introduced new work safety and insurance policies
Sanitation workers in China—like their brothers and sisters around the world—have experienced discrimination for decades. The treatment they receive is similar to that of the mortuary worker in the Academy Award-winning Japanese film Okuribito (“Departures”), who is ostracized because of his profession. People look down upon or even despise street cleaners and janitors and their work. According to a special report in People’s Daily from August 2008, there are several hundred cases of verbal and physical abuse of sanitation workers every year in one of China’s cities alone. In the report, a worker is quoted as saying that he “usually just don’t feel a bit of social respect for [the sanitation] profession.”
Chinese sanitation workers may benefit from studying the experience of their comrades in the U.S. Recently, janitors in the Twin Cities won full-time green jobs, better health insurance and a new contract by negotiating with their employers. The janitors united and engaged their employers with one voice. As a vulnerable, underpaid group, forming a union was essential to their success. Efforts like the Guangzhou Federation of Trade Union’s organizing of construction workers could be expanded to include sanitation workers.
There are several reasons to be hopeful for Chinese sanitation workers. The general public in China has begun to pay more attention to the poor living and working conditions of street cleaners and janitors. When I searched for “环卫工人2010” (“sanitation workers 2010”) on Google on April 6, I found 801,000 results; 676,000 were from the year 2009; 315,000 were from 2008; and 75,100 were from 2004. Of course, many of these hits may have been for business websites or other irrelevant websites, but from this sharp increase, we can infer there will be even more coverage of sanitation workers’ stories in the years ahead.
During the Third Session of the Eleventh National People's Congress in March this year, many representatives handed in proposals for raising the salaries of sanitation workers. Some suggested observing a Sanitation Day to show the workers appreciation. After the session closed, provinces and cities competed to be the first—and feared to be the last—in making improvements in this area.
Regulations similar to the regulations in Zhejiang Province mentioned at the beginning of this post have been issued in Beijing and Kunming. Since most urban sanitation workers are government employees, these regulations have great potential for raising the compensation they receive. Nonetheless, the treatment enjoyed by sanitation workers differs from province to province.
In some cities, sanitation workers are no longer Civil Servants. Nanjing city is one such city. By July 2004, there were 7,800 migrant workers employed as sanitation workers in the city, with neither employment contracts nor insurance. In contrast, the Hexi District government of Sanya City, Hainan has bought insurance, valued sixty thousand RMB, for seven hundred and twenty three sanitation workers in the area. There is no official data reflecting the treatment of sanitation workers nationwide, such as contract rates or insurance coverage (read ILRF’s report on implementation of the Labor Contract Law here). There is a long way to go from where we are now.
But changing people’s attitudes and treatment of sanitation workers will be more difficult. As the old Chinese saying goes: “To be a scholar is to be the top of society, and learning is the noblest of human pursuits.” Occupations that require little education are usually looked down upon. As China’s economy evolves, Chinese people’s values should evolve along with it. When people start to realize that every occupation is equal as long as it contributes to our society, things will start to change.
We should be optimistic—but also actively strive to make the lives of sanitation workers better.