All-day standing drives shopping mall restroom cleaners round the bend
Spotless bathrooms are the pride of the city's high-end malls. But their poorly paid staff are feeling the pain from spending hours on their feet
"I will be in trouble if I get caught not standing straight," says the cleaner in the middle of his 12-hour shift in a restroom at West Kowloon's plush Elements Mall.
"Even leaning against the wall is out of the question," says the 65-year-old, a former warehouse worker who became a cleaner two years ago. The only rest he gets comes during a one-hour lunch break and a 30-minute evening break, during which he also has to fit in dinner.
A boom in the number of high-end malls has seen bosses seek to make spotless bathrooms a selling point for visitors, employing at least one cleaner per restroom and maintaining standards on a par with posh hotels.
But the human cost has led to accusations that mall owners are putting a professional image ahead of staff welfare. Those who take on the task, most in their 50s or 60s, work for the HK$30 minimum wage or not much more. And besides being uncomfortable, ergonomics experts say that long hours on their feet can be bad for older workers' health.
A chair in the workplace would make a huge difference to most of the cleaners.
"Even at the busiest time of the day, mopping the floor or cleaning cubicles would not take up the entire 60 minutes of an hour," said a 60-year-old who is closely supervised as he keeps a busy restroom at the IFC Mall in Central spotless. "I need to take turns bending each of my legs so that both legs can get some rest and I can stand longer."
For a 12-hour day, six days a week, cleaners can expect to earn only about HK$11,000 per month.
One cleaner at Cityplaza in Quarry Bay said she once grew so tired she sat on a bucket. But her supervisor spotted her and told her off, so the woman, in her 50s, has not done so again.
"It would be nice if there was a chair for us to rest on," she said. "They don't even allow us to eat an apple. They said, 'Your job doesn't include eating apples'."
She works 101/2 hours each day for HK$30 per hour. Her lunch hour - her only break - is unpaid. She said her legs and back hurt.
"Sometimes when I'm too tired, I sit on the toilet for a while after I use it," she said.
Another IFC Mall janitor said she came out of a toilet cubicle once only to be shouted at by her manager because another cubicle was dirty. She was accused of resting instead of cleaning.
"I've been standing for so long that my veins show," she said.
However, one cleaner at Elements said the work was more important than giving staff seats.
"It will be good for us workers but unfair to the customers. The toilets will be very dirty," she said.
The MTR Corporation, which manages Elements, and Hysan Development, which runs Hysan Place in Causeway Bay, said cleaners had regular breaks during shifts, as well as meal breaks. The two companies said janitors were provided with a break room with chairs and tables to rest in.
The two, as well as Nixon Cleaning, a Sun Hung Kai Properties subsidiary which looks after IFC Mall, said cleaning work had to be conducted while standing, so no chair was provided.
"If [cleaners] are required to remain standing just for the sake of it, they are being unnecessarily exhausted," said Luke Ching Chin-wai, an artist who successfully campaigned for chairs for museum security guards in 2007.
"It only shows that such companies value a so-called professional image more than workers' well-being."
Older staff face greater health risks if required to stand for long periods, said Ida Yiu, president of the Hong Kong Ergonomics Society. "Even for a person who never does any physically demanding work when young, his or her joints will start to wear down after the age of 50," Yiu said.
The most common symptoms from prolonged standing, Yiu said, were varicose veins, the lumpy and bluish lines on legs, or plantar fasciitis, a common condition involving inflammation of the connective tissue that runs underneath the heel to the toes.
Apart from sitting, Yiu says any activity that relieves the strain prolonged standing puts on certain joints, such as stretching or walking, is helpful. But rest remains the best prevention.
A Swire Properties spokeswoman said it carried out regular inspections at its malls, including Cityplaza, to ensure the health and safety of employees. Cleaners could rest during duty hours.