Small acts of gratitude for outdoor workers can go a long way

Allison Zhu
As for ordinary citizens, the most simple way we can help is to say xiexie or xin ku la next time we see a sanitation worker. 
Allison Zhu

Dong Yue, a sanitation worker, paused to count how many months have passed since he had last gone home. Beads of sweat dripped down his face as he crouched in the shade.

For Dong, 45, who spends 12 hours a day and seven days a week cleaning a few hundred meters of road surrounding Century Park, his daily drudgery is sweetened by the prospect of paying a visit to his wife, a primary school English teacher, and his daughter in rural Heilongjiang Province. He has not seen them in two years.

His daughter, about to begin her third-year of senior high school in September, is studying hard for the college entrance examination.

Dong passes over an electric fan or a bottle of cold water to save his wages for the daughter. He is paid 15 yuan (US$2.2) per hour.

As summer temperatures soar, outdoor workers face risks of nausea and heat stroke, but there is no escaping the pervasive heat.

Maybe you have been ordering a takeout rather than cooking, or leaving empty plastic bottles and cooling gels on the sidewalk, too sweaty and tired to find a waste bin.

Imagine working a full day under the sun, delivering meals, or cleaning up leftovers and takeout containers, without enough water, rest breaks or shade.

Hard work

On a particularly hot day, there is generally more for a cleaner to pick up or sweep off. And in the heat, if garbage is not collected in time, the rotting smell permeates the streets, so sanitation workers like Dong work the hardest during the hottest times of the day.

Last year, on July 21, temperature hit a record 40.9 degrees Celsius, the hottest in at least 145 years. And anyone who has spent a summer in Shanghai knows, it’s not just the heat; it’s also the humidity.

Many places have set subsidy standards for outdoor laborers working in high-temperatures. Still, employers’ compliance often remains unclear.

Certain enterprises follow that if “employees do not ask, employers do not pay.”

In response, the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security is inspecting employers’ compliance with high-temperature labor and benefits regulations.

Meanwhile, street shops can help sanitation workers by providing temporary resting areas and water.

Shanghai has recently added over 400 “love relay stations” with free water, hot meals and air conditioning for workers. Identifiable by their red logo, these resting stations now total more than 6,100, and are located in chain stores such as Family Mart, Dicos and City Shop, and also bus stations, gas stations, and outlets of banks and property agencies.

Even stores that do not have designated rest stations can make an effort to supply water.

Produce less waste

On a hot day, as I was in line for a cold milk tea near my office, a sanitation worker approached the counter and asked for some water. The cashier ignored his first request and the third time around, the worker returned to his construction post with an empty canteen.

As for ordinary citizens, the most simple way we can help is to say xiexie or xin ku la next time we see a sanitation worker. We can also respect our environment and minimize our consumption. On my way to work yesterday morning, I noticed a line of half-stomped out cigarette butts, a kitten drinking out of a plastic packet of soymilk, and heaps of hastily placed Ofo bicycles.

Shanghai has over 53,000 sanitation workers who clean more than 20,000 tons of garbage daily, rain or shine. Even if you do not litter, garbage does not magically disappear once disposed of in designated waste bins; sanitation workers have to take the garbage out to larger waste plants.

Consciously changing one’s habits, however, can create a ripple effect person by person, household by household, and workplace by workplace. Even the smallest of actions, like using one less tissue, in a city with a population of over 24 million people, translates into 24 million less pieces of garbage for sanitation workers to collect.

Our small acts of great love, from simply expressing gratitude to reducing the amount of waste we produce, in turn reduces the workload of sanitation workers and lets them know that we really appreciate their hours of hard work.

The author is an intern at Shanghai Daily.

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