Hong Kong's Street Sweepers
You see them working everywhere in Hong Kong. Many are older women and men but there are some young people as well. They are street sweepers. The city employs 3,800 of them a day. They labor from sunrise to sunset to keep the streets of Hong Kong as dirt and garbage free as possible. After the SARS epidemic the government here made cleanliness a number one priority. They committed themselves to tidying up every street in Hong Kong at least once each day. Heavy pedestrian areas are manually swept and washed with hoses more often, up to eight times in a twenty four hour period.
I marvel at the strength of the sweepers. Often I see them pushing carts piled high with the refuse they've had to collect before they can begin sweeping. To be hired as a city cleaner you must be able to prove you can pick up at least 50 kg.of garbage and carry it ten meters.
The workers wear a distinctive uniform supplied by the city. They have dark navy blue pants and long sleeved shirts. Each also wears a safety reflective vest and boots or shoes. I often think about how uncomfortable these heavily clad workers must be on the hot days of a Hong Kong summer when temperatures hover near the 40 degree mark and the humidity is 90%. The one area in which there seems to be no uniformity is head gear. Each worker appears to design their own. Many older women wear the traditional wide, woven bamboo hat commonly seen on farm laborers in mainland China. Some have added netting or earflaps to these hats. Their headgear seems to be a way for each sweeper to distinguish themselves from their fellow workers.
Street cleaners receive a planning sheet when they report for their jobs each morning. It outlines their ‘cleansing beat', the section of Hong Kong they are assigned to keep tidy for the day. Once they know their area the sweepers walk to it and begin work. Most are meticulous and thorough. I have seen workers use long handled tongs to pick up tiny pieces of refuse in small cracks and spaces. They sweep out gutters and drains. When their hand carts are full they transfer the garbage to huge black bags that are picked up later by trucks.
For a city its size Hong Kong is amazingly clean. This is due to the hard work of the street sweepers but also the severity of the consequences for littering. You can be fined up to $1,500 for failing to deposit garbage in a refuse bin or throwing it on the street. The government takes in a tidy $17 million in littering penalties. Signs everywhere remind citizens to keep Hong Kong clean.
Street sweepers are so much a part of Hong Kong's landscape that residents soon take them for granted and barely notice their presence. First time visitors however are sure to point them out. The street sweepers of Hong Kong play a special role in the life of this unique city.
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Published on 1/23/10