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Working Below A Clean Hong Kong

Women Cleaners Under the Exploitation of Subcontracting in Hong Kong

An Overview

Confronted with the impact of economic restructuring, many women workers displaced from the manufacturing sector ended up in cleaning jobs. The job nature is generally unpleasant, labour-intensive and lowly-paid, and associated with low status. Out of the six million people in Hong Kong, more than 2 million are living in public housing estates. There are about 166 public housing estates, employing over 15,000 cleaners. With the privatisation of public services, all of this cleaning work is subcontracted to private cleaning companies which in turn subcontract the work of each housing block to individual cleaners or the next line of subcontractors.

Cleaners are unscrupulously exploited under the subcontracting system. Normally companies which offer the lowest bid can get the contract from the Housing Authority, a government-subsidised statutory body that is virtually the landlord. To ensure a high profit mark-up, cleaning companies often employ the following management tactics:

  • Except supervisors, all cleaners are employed as casual part-time workers with minimal pay and no employment benefits like sick leave, annual leave and injury compensation;

  • Subcontracting each housing block, with a minimal fixed amount of work, to the cleaner or several blocks/shopping arcade/wet market to a subcontractor known to the cleaners as 'supervisor'. Cleaners have to collect and clear the garbage from each household one or two times a day as well as cleaning the corridors, elevators and staircases. Each block accommodates several hundred households.

  • It is unlikely for the women cleaners to finish such heavy workload on her own. To get the work done, she will either share the work AND THE PAY with another cleaner and turns herself into a subcontractor, or mobilise her children and husband to finish the work in the evening.

    Thus some cleaners are not directly employed by the cleaning companies, and they are not protected under the labour ordinance. In case of work injury, they are not

  • entitled to any compensation. This is critical as the cleaners have to work under hazardous conditions: they are often hurt by glass splinters, broken housewares, light bulbs and bulky furniture. In the refuse room, cleaners have to collect garbage poured down through a giant channel. Dust, sewage, and broken pieces very often fly out, hurting their eyes. There are also all the toxic chemicals in various household items. The disgusting fact is that to save money, many cleaning companies do not supply any gloves nor masks, not even the cheapest type.

    Most cleaners are women living in the same housing estate, with bonded domestic and childcare responsibilities. Even though the pay is low and the working condition is harsh, they still accept the job because the working hours fit into their responsibility at home. With limited alternatives, the cleaning job at least provides them with some needed income, and allow them to cope with the dual responsibility as a worker and care-tender.
    (more pictures on page 2)
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