Keeping the city clean: the hard life of sanitation workers

In the past seven years of working as a sanitation worker in Shanghai, Zhao Minyan, from Anhui Province, has never made it home for the Chinese New Year holiday.
Jiang Xiaowei / SHINE

Local sanitation worker Zhao Minyan sweeps on Fangbang Road M. near downtown Yuyuan Garden.

Zhao Minyan, 34, a sanitation worker from Anhui Province, will be cleaning streets in Shanghai on New Year’s Eve.

Of course, she would prefer to spend the evening with her husband and two children, watching the annual China Central TV Spring Festival Gala after dinner. More than that, she wishes she had the time to return to her hometown of Fuyang to spend the holiday with family and old friends.

In the past seven years of working in Shanghai, she has never made it home for the holiday. 

“I want to return to my hometown during Spring Festival, but the holiday is our busiest time,” she said. 

“Our workload is several times heavier than on normal days.”

Zhao’s team is assigned to keeping the streets clean in the Yuyuan Garden area of Henan, Renmin and Fuxing roads. She and a few others handle a 300-meter section of Fangbang Road M., in front of the iconic Yuyuan Garden market and the City God Temple, where locals go to burn incense on New Year’s Eve to pray for a prosperous year ahead.

During the Spring Festival period, the Yuyuan area will be packed with people, many of them out-of-towners on a holiday visit. 

Where there are people, there is litter. Somebody has to clean it up. Zhao will be working every day of the weeklong holiday. 

A consolation is the ban on fireworks within the Outer Ring Road of Shanghai. It came into effect last year to mitigate accidents caused by explosives and eliminate polluted air from smoke of fireworks. 

“Before fireworks were banned, the ground was blanketed with spent fireworks, and the dust made it difficult for us to open our eyes,” she recalled.

Still, part of her team’s assignment this holiday season is to keep an eye out for any illegal fireworks.

On New Year’s Eve, all 111 sanitation workers of Zhao’s team will be working. Their patch has one of the heaviest workloads of any sanitation team. 

“We clear nearly 10 tons of garbage from the area every day because it is a tourist attraction, and there are many shops and snack eateries,” said team leader Shi Wei. 

“We only wish more people would respect the work we do.” 

Zhao’s normal work shift starts at 5:30am and ends at 1:30 in the afternoon, but work hours change during the holiday and times of emergencies. For example, last month she was on the streets at 4:30am helping clear the streets after a heavy snowfall. 

“We couldn’t use our brooms because the snow was so deep and wet,” she said. “We had to use shovels.”

It took hours to clear, and the raincoat she was wearing didn’t do much to keep out the damp cold.

Zhao Minyan pushes a bin as she clears the street of litter during her normal work routine.

Like most of their colleagues, Zhao and her husband, who is also a sanitation worker, rent a 20-square-meter apartment. 

This week, they will sit down to an abbreviated version of the New Year’s Eve dinner earlier in the day. “We have to eat early because of work,” she said. “I will prepare five dishes, including chicken, fish and pork.” 

She said she will make sure her daughter and son, aged 6 and 12, are asleep before she and her husband leave for work. Hers is a backbreaking job. She said she has twice been hit by mopeds while on the job, and her body often aches from all the sweeping and stooping to pick up litter. 

“In rain and snow, sun and wind, we have to always be on the streets to keep them clean,” she said. 

In summer, her clothing gets soaked by sweat. In winter, her fingers grow numb from the cold. 

“The most difficult things to clean up are oily foods and chewing gum,” said Zhao. “Sometimes, tourists throw litter on the street just after we have cleaned it. When we remind them not to litter, some just snort and say it’s our job.”

Zhao gets only five days of annual leave every year. 

“I have no time to take my children out on normal days,” she said. “Annual leave is a time I treasure greatly.”

She likes to recall the Spring Festivals in the past to keep her warm when she’s out on the streets working this holiday season.

“On the eve, we always gathered together to have a family reunion dinner, watch the CCTV gala, chat and set off fireworks,” she said. 

“There used to be as many as 20 people gathered around the table, which was full of dishes.”

She added, “I miss that very much. Now New Year’s Eve makes me homesick.”

Zhao said she will phone relatives still in Anhui to wish them Happy New Year, and will be able to catch glimpses of the TV gala on her mobile phone. 

Zhao keeps her spirits up. Her wish for the Year of the Dog? “For a healthy and happy family,” she said.

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