Cleaned to death

By Hu Qingyun Source:Global Times Published: 2013-8-22 23:08:01

An 80-year-old woman cleans up trash on a street in Jiujiang, Jiangxi Province, in January this year. Photo: CFP

An 80-year-old woman cleans up trash on a street in Jiujiang, Jiangxi Province, in January this year. Photo: CFP

Despite the immense temperatures recorded during the recent heat wave, 72-year-old sanitation worker Ji Chunbo toiled through the temperatures on the afternoon of July 31. Eventually the heat and his advanced age got the best of him and he keeled over. Three days later he passed away.

All Ji had left were savings of 1,492 yuan ($243) - just 100 yuan over his normal monthly income. He had no formal contract, so there was no way his family could receive any pension payments from the local government of Xinzheng, Henan Province. It was only when his case received media coverage that the government agreed to provide compensation, but the details were kept secret.

The case revealed that among the nearly 200 sanitation workers hired by the Xinzheng urban management department, more than half are over 60 years old. The oldest were sacked in the aftermath of the incident.

Senior citizens can often be seen working as sanitation workers in other cities in China, but Ji's death highlights the fact that this kind of work can pose dangers to elderly citizens, and there have been questions as to why these people are doing it, and whether their employers are taking advantage of them and denying them workers' rights including pensions.

Immediate sackings

As the heat mounted both literally and figuratively, the Xinzheng authorities preemptively removed seven other elderly workers - all over 70 years old - from their positions, and gave each 200 yuan in compensation.

A spokesperson from publicity department of the city, surnamed Li, denied they were sacked, and said they had only been temporarily suspended due to the heat wave.

But when asked about whether any measures would be taken to assist them in this interim period, Li claimed that the local authorities had taken "proper measures" to settle them and declined to reveal the details. "Maybe when the weather gets cool, we might still welcome them back to work if they want," Li added.

Sanitation workers from other cities in China told the Global Times that they had effectively been fired, as with just 200 yuan they would struggle to make a living and vague promises of future employment would be hard to accept.

A sanitation worker surnamed Tang, from Ziyang, Sichuan Province, told the Global Times that as the wages of sanitary workers are low and the hours are long, only those without useful skills who find it difficult to get other jobs would choose this field.

"I'm also waiting for a formal contract with my company. I heard that without a proper contract, my company can fine me without giving any real reasons or compensation,"

Zhang Lianzhu, a 62-year-old sanitation worker from Hebei Province who has been working in Beijing for 10 years, told the Global Times.

Zhang refused to name his company, citing fears of repercussions.

Li also failed to clarify whether the Xinzheng government had signed any contracts with the elderly workers, and instead just said that the government follows the rules.

According to a report in the Beijing Youth Daily on Monday, the seven sacked workers, who were from rural areas near the city, have complained that they don't have any contracts with the authorities, have received no compensation and were laid off without a proper reason despite working there for decades.

Too old for insurance

Li declined to explain why the government chose to hire older workers, but said "many cities operate just like us." 

Tang, who has worked in the profession for a decade, said he had noticed the majority of sanitation workers in his city are in their 50s or 60s. 

A manager surnamed Ruan from a sanitation company which cleans streets in Beijing, who requested his company name remain anonymous, told the Global Times that the majority of their workers are in their 50s, with some a bit older than 60.

"We hire them because it's difficult to find enough workers. It's a dirty, tough job that not many people want to do. These old workers are not as physically strong as younger workers, so we need to replace them frequently and it's riskier to hire them," he said.

However, despite the increased risks for older workers, Ruan said it is not compulsory for these companies to buy work-related insurance or pay pension insurance for workers over 60 years old.

He said that his company had bought commercial insurance for the elderly employees, but most companies didn't bother, partly because they were worried about complications that could occur if they became ill or died.

A member of the China Association for Labor Studies, surnamed Sun, told the Global Times that legally speaking, the manager was correct, as 60 is the legal retirement age in China, and people over that age are already supposed to have enough pension funds.

Sun pointed out that as socioeconomic levels vary across the country, pensions in some rural areas can't cover living expenses, which makes it difficult for some to retire.

A private matter

Li said that the privatization of the industry would help attract local, younger workers.

"We hope that by the end of the year, the income of these workers can increase by 500 yuan per month and hope to attract younger, skillful people if the company can bring in more advanced equipment to keep our cities clean," Li said.

However, according to Tang, whose contract was transferred from the local authorities to a sanitation company in 2012, privatization seemed to just be an excuse to avoid their duties or any potential disputes with workers.

The Global Times earlier reported that in many cases, privatization created two different standards of employment for workers, with those on the government payroll receiving better salaries and benefits than those working for private companies.

Only roughly 20 percent of sanitation workers in China enjoy superior benefits. The situation has provided an opportunity for some workers to exploit matters by hiring others to do their jobs, while only giving them part of the salary.

In one example, reported that six government-employed sanitation workers in Zhengzhou, Henan Province, hired elderly migrant workers to do their jobs. Their wages were around 4,000 yuan per month but they hired migrant workers to do the jobs for just 1,240 yuan.

Posted in: Society

blog comments powered by Disqus