Risky Business for China’s Window Cleaners

Risky Business for China’s Window Cleaners
Photo Credit:Nicu Buculei@Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0
What you need to know

Inadequate training, lack of oversight, and outdated regulations are putting an entire industry at risk.

Li Xinfu was supposed to secure the wooden scaffold with two ropes — one to raise and lower him down the facade of the building so he could clean its windows, and the other as a safety backup. However, he decided not to use the second rope, as it restricted the amount of surface area he could cover in one session. When the one rope he was using snapped, Li fell four stories onto a patch of dirt. His right arm was crushed.

More than a year later, Li, now 48, is still unable to work, and he has not received compensation from the contractor beyond reimbursement for his initial medical costs. His story highlights the complex problem of worker safety in this small yet high-risk industry.

An estimated 400,000 people work for 20,000 window-cleaning companies in China, said 65-year-old Liu Yu of the Occupational Safety and Health Association. The government put Liu, a prominent researcher on work safety, in charge of compiling the first set of national safety standards for window washers. It’s a fast-growing industry: More than 3,000 companies now compete for contracts in Shanghai alone, up from next to none just two decades ago.

Nobody knows for sure the exact number of casualties suffered each year, as monitoring and accountability systems are poor. But according to Huang Shengchu, director of the Center for Safety Research under the State Administration of Work Safety, more than 1,000 lives are lost every year to accidents in the construction sector, and 60 percent of these deaths come as a result of falls, including those from collapsed scaffolding.

Although Chinese law requires that all window cleaners be trained and licensed, in reality few are, and credential checks are easily circumvented. Migrant workers flock to cities to fulfill contracts during warm weather and then disappear as winter approaches, making training programs an onerous annual chore for businesses. As the window-washing industry has grown, companies have operated on increasingly slim profit margins, meaning there’s little left in the coffers for staff development or insurance against accidents. In addition, the barely literate workers are rarely keen to observe cumbersome regulations.

The result of all this is that Li is still fighting to receive disability benefits from his former employer a year after his fall. “The rope was pretty old but looked like it was in good shape,” Li told Sixth Tone. “It worked fine for the first two days.” No one overseeing the site ever checked whether he was using one rope or two, he said.

Seven years ago, China’s central government released Liu’s safety standards for window washers, requiring, among other things, compulsory training for all would-be cleaners. But Liu admits that the standards as they were adopted lacked teeth compared with those of other countries such as the United States, which has clear means of enforcement already in place in the form of its Occupational Health and Safety Administration, a branch of the U.S. Department of Labor charged with enforcing regulations and assisting both workers and employers. The OHSA also works closely with the International Window Cleaning Association, the industry’s union, for statistics, guidance, and access to training resources, all with the central focus of protecting the health and safety of workers.

Since 2010, Liu’s team has only managed to train about 3,000 of China’s 400,000 window washers, or less than 1 percent of the workforce. “The industry is too small to warrant government attention,” Liu said, “and few people are willing to take it upon themselves to enforce training.” While 400,000 workers might sound like a large number, it’s still only a quarter of the total workforce of China National Petroleum Corporation, one of the world’s largest employers, sitting at third place on Fortune’s “Global 500” list.

In 2009, Liu founded a new committee under the Occupational Health and Safety Association tasked specifically with encouraging more companies to implement safety training. The committee works with trade councils from the ministries of construction and commerce to promote a system for worker training and certification. The costs of training can vary from 300 yuan (US$45) for a 12-day certification in Shanghai to 800 yuan for a one-day course in neighboring Jiangsu province. By law the certification needs to be renewed every two to three years.

But it’s not always easy to get stubborn migrant workers to attend trainings, said 30-year-old Quan Minmin, who runs a startup cleaning company in Shanghai that relies heavily on freelance window washers. “I really can’t make them do anything, even if it’s to save their lives,” she told Sixth Tone.

The problem isn’t difficult to understand: Workers would rather get paid to work than not get paid to be trained. Although stricter legislation has led many high-rise site managers to demand official work permits from their staff, forged documents aren’t hard to obtain. Quan said that the growing need for official certification has created a black market of sellers providing workers with forged documents. “Most ‘certified’ cleaners are still obviously undertrained,” she said. “I would say that in 97 percent of these cases, the work permits are fake.” And in cases where workers do have genuine licenses, they are often in someone else’s name. “The regulations are too outdated to reflect the current state of the industry,” Quan said.

The application process for safety trainings is a prime example of China’s inadequate management of certification. The trade councils for the construction, commerce, and work safety industries will not accept applications or hold trainings for fewer than seven people at a time, and each company that applies must be a member of the relevant trade association.

“The fact is, almost all of the workers in our business are freelance rather than full-time window washers, meaning they’re barred from attending these trainings,” said Quan. And therein lies the dilemma: Most cleaners refuse to be trained because of the opportunity cost of lost wages, but for those who do hope to obtain certification to make themselves more employable, they might not have access to trainings in the first place.

As China has grown richer, manual labor is no longer as cheap and abundant, and so cleaning companies are struggling to make enough money to justify training their employees. In Shanghai, experienced skyscraper washers make 350 to 400 yuan a day, said Quan, compared with 50 yuan 10 years ago and 300 yuan in 2014.

An increase in competition over the years has also contributed to a drop in company profits. According to 32-year-old Li Haihua, who runs a 10-man cleaning firm in Shanghai, a decade ago window-cleaning companies could charge 8 yuan per square meter of glass, whereas now it’s 2 yuan or less. Any project can easily attract a dozen bidders, he explained, and building managers are perfectly content to sit back and let them undercut each other. A decade ago, Li said, the profit margin was huge — around 90 percent — but it has shrunk to around 20 percent today.

Every year Li pays around 50,000 yuan, or a quarter of his yearly profits, to staff training programs and insurance companies, whom he says aren’t particularly eager to work with the sector given its small scale and high risk. One of China’s largest providers, Ping An Insurance, pays 500,000 yuan for a fatal accident, but Li says that in big cities like Shanghai, there is ample precedent for these settlements to exceed 1 million yuan.

Li knows that his insurance would not be enough to cover a large claim from one of his workers, so he insists that they be well-trained and take every conceivable precaution to avoid both accidents and fines for violations like removing helmets or releasing safety ropes. “Workers can’t be so blind to risk, because my business would be ruined if anything happened to them,” Li said.

Due to a lack of adequate insurance and enforcement of safety standards, the window-cleaning industry regularly sees legal disputes about culpability and compensation. By law, all Chinese workers are entitled to medical treatment, monetary compensation, and paid leave after an accident at work. When workers file claims for damages, compensation is split between two parties: Project managers generally pay around 70 percent of the costs not covered by insurance, while the cleaning companies are responsible for the rest of the payout.

After Li survived his fall, he was rushed to the hospital by his employer, with whom he had an unofficial, verbal contract. The employer paid his medical bills and then promptly disappeared, leaving Li with no idea of whom he should turn to in order to file an insurance claim.

After asking for 200,000 yuan in an unsuccessful labor arbitration earlier this year, Li sued the project developer, this time for 210,000 yuan. He said the company’s lawyers replied with a cool “We’ll see you in court,” as though this were an exercise they had mastered over the years with repetition.

Li is now waiting for a ruling from the court.

Du Zaili, an industrial hygiene manager at Charlotte, North Carolina-based packaging company Sealed Air Corporation and a vocal trainer in the industry, is skeptical that the Chinese government will pass any forceful measures to protect workers and encourage businesses to operate more safely any time soon. “The government hasn’t done more to fix the industry, which is hardly essential to the broader economy,” he told Sixth Tone. “Moreover, fatalities are too sporadic to grab attention the same way collapsed coal mines do.”

For now, efforts to improve worker safety remain by and large at the grassroots level, with all the leading trade councils getting together for their annual meeting this month to determine whether they can make strides toward getting this niche yet dangerous industry safely on track.

“Hundreds of thousands of lives are at stake,” said safety guideline architect Liu. “We can’t turn a blind eye to lives literally hanging in the balance.”

(The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published on Sixth Tone here. Sixth Tone covers trending topics, in-depth features, and illuminating commentary from the perspectives of those most intimately involved in the issues affecting China today. It belongs to the state-funded Shanghai United Media Group.)

First Editor: Olivia Yang