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November 4, 2011

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'For work they risk their lives'

OBLIVIOUS to the heavy rain, a man in a leather jacket stood just beyond the police cordon, gazing intently. Before him lay the bodies of two window cleaners who fell to their deaths yesterday in Changning District.

Occasionally, he spoke quietly to onlookers who were speculating about what had happened.

"For their work they risked their lives," sighed the man, surnamed Zhao, who should know as he has worked in the same dangerous trade.

Zhao, a passer-by, said he had been a high-rise window cleaner for six years but quit. "There are two things you need for that job; one is a license and the other is guts."

More than 1,000 window cleaners - a trade known as a SpiderMan - work on high-rises across the city, risking their lives on a daily basis, separated from death only by their securing ropes.

And increasingly, they are threatened by a lack of supervision on equipment checks and poor safety awareness, warned a local exterior wall cleaning industry committee.

An official, surnamed Wu, said many cleaning service companies don't check equipment regularly, meaning a SpiderMan may have to rely on aged or damaged ropes and tools.

For though the industry committee requires companies to check equipment, the absence of a supervising facility means regulations are often ignored, said Wu.

"The life of a cleaner depends on the rope that holds him," said Wu, "But there are no laws forcing companies to ensure equipment is safe."

Moreover, some workers do not even hold operation licenses, which need to be renewed annually after exams.

Zhao said the job is usually taken by migrant workers who shift jobs frequently, some working for several companies at one time.

"To save money, some companies only get one or two licenses but hire many workers," he explained.

To make matters worse, fierce competition among small cleaning companies is driving them to cut costs as much as possible, impacting on equipment checks and training, said Wu.

And when accidents happen, some cleaners are not covered by insurance, as their employers haven't bought any, he added.

Zhao, from Jiangsu Province, said in his time as a window cleaner he saw several injuries among colleagues who fell but were saved by safety locks.

And despite the dangers they face, high-rise window cleaners are poorly rewarded.

"Often, I didn't know where my next meal was coming from," said Zhao, who said workers receive about 150 yuan to 200 yuan for a day's work. "However, sometimes we waited for one month between jobs."

Zhao said many men from his hometown come to Shanghai to work in the trade.

Taking a final look at the bodies, covered by white sheets, Zhao walked away from the crowd as the rain got heavier. "Too bad for them," he said as he left.


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