Have you ever wondered, when going into one of Hong Kong’s many well-maintained public lavatories, why at least one permanent attendant can be found in almost every facility? Even in high-traffic areas during peak periods – parts of Central on weekdays, or Stanley Market on a weekend – a visit from the cleaners every couple of hours should suffice to keep the conveniences sanitary.
Hong Kong’s armies of toilet cleaners and street sweepers illustrate the tragic failure of earlier government policies. Until 1971, no compulsory primary education existed in Hong Kong and many desperately poor families could not afford to keep their children in school for more than a few years before they were expected to join the workforce to contribute to the family purse.
Fast forward some decades and many of those children are still of working age; two more decades will pass before they are all too old to work. Meanwhile, jobs have to be found, and it is now far more expensive for the government to subsidise their employment than it would have been to provide better educational opportunities in the first place. Groups of late-middle-aged people clustered together brushing up and bagging leaves in a park, or sweeping roadside gutters, or hosing out public lavatories, graphically illustrate this fact.
Unsurprisingly, one of the most common threats made to schoolchildren is that if they don’t study hard and pass their exams, all they will be fit to do in life is sweep the streets.
In spite of the fact that well-swept streets are a basic necessity of civilised life, being a street sweeper remains a low-status occupation in Chinese society and so, in times of political upheaval, sending formerly higher-status individuals out to sweep the roads was one of the most humiliating punishments available. The Chinese Communist Party adopted such an approach after its assumption of power, in 1949, and authenticated accounts of those who couldn’t tolerate the shame of being sent out onto the roads with a broom, and committed suicide soon afterwards, are commonplace.
In contemporary Hong Kong, private cleaning companies tender for government contracts before directly employing their workers. This arrangement neatly firewalls government departments from the accusation of employing unskilled workers under exploitative conditions: it’s the contractors who employ them, and not the government departments, so that’s all right then.
The usual argument for minimum-wage legislation is that it leads to the better and more efficient use of labour. In the West, where average wages are significantly higher than in Hong Kong, a greater requirement exists for public-sector efficiency. But here, where basic wages remain low, that need is sharply reduced and it is generally accepted that it is better for these individuals to be employed in menial jobs – a form of “work for dole”, with their wages subsidised by the government – than to get something for nothing or to be left idle with all the associated social ills. And lest we forget, “better” and “more efficiently” are usually not the same thing, whatever certain right-wing economists would have us believe.
Many other of Hong Kong’s street sweepers are drawn from ethnic minorities and have minimal education and limited Chinese-language skills. Nepali women, in particular – immediately recognisable by their distinctive, heavily wrought gold ear and nose jewellery – predominate in certain areas, such as Central and Yau Ma Tei.