Street cleaner Tsui finished work at 5.30pm on Sunday (Sept 8), grabbed a quick dinner and headed for Wan Chai MTR station to go home, only to find the station closed because of anti-government protests. The 60-year-old, who asked to be identified only by his surname, decided to walk two stations to Tin Hau.

He avoided Causeway Bay, having heard there were clashes between police and protesters there, after thousands marched to the United States consulate to appeal for American support. The detour did not save him from pungent, irritating fumes that made his eyes tear up immediately. “My eyes and skin were burning,” he recalls. “The tear gas must have been brought here by the wind.”

He got home safely that night, but returned the next morning to find a huge mess on the streets he usually cleans, including Hennessy Road, the major artery running through Wan Chai. Broken glass, torched rubbish bins, and iron pipes used by protesters to block roads were strewn around the streets.

“There was broken glass everywhere, and we had to sweep it by hand, which took hours,” says Mr Tsui, who has been a cleaner for more than 10 years. “We also had to take those long iron pipes back to the garbage collection point.”

More than three months of anti-government protests, with increasing violence during clashes between protesters and police, have resulted in a lot more work, inconvenience and discomfort for many of Hong Kong’s 11,900 cleaners.

Angry protesters have been hurling petrol bombs and trashing metro stations, with the police responding by firing more than 2,380 rounds of tear gas since the protests began in June. The cleaners are not only faced with the mess left behind, but are also exposed to tear gas and pepper spray as they work without proper protective gear.

Their job is to sweep the streets, collect waste, wash public toilets and keep the city clean. The cleaners, many of whom are elderly like Mr Tsui, come under the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) and its five outsourced service contractors.

The Cleaning Workers Union feels the government and its contractors need to do more to protect cleaners. The FEHD says it has already given cleaners the flexibility to stop work when clashes break out, and has provided its contractors with guidelines for how to remove tear gas residue safely.

In a survey of cleaners’ safety during the protests last month, the union interviewed 75 cleaners in nine common protest sites — including Causeway Bay, Wan Chai and Sheung Wan — and found that 53 had been exposed to tear gas while working, and some suffered eye pain as well as breathing difficulty or skin irritation.

None of the workers were properly equipped with protective gear such as respirators, goggles or gloves. They wore common surgical masks only, the union found. Cleaner Dick Lam, 50, who works the late shift from 5.30pm to 11.30pm in the Causeway Bay shopping district, says he has caught a whiff of tear gas more than once.

On one occasion, the gas was so unbearable that he rushed back to the refuse collection point to rinse his eyes with bottled water. “Rounds of tear gas were fired nearby, and I didn’t have any protective gear except for a mask, which was useless to fend off tear gas,” he says. “I wetted a towel and covered my nose with it. Then I rinsed my eyes.”

Mr Lam says he remains on duty during such situations for fear of being punished by his company if he stops work. “I have to stay at work until my shift ends, no matter what,” he says.

Usually, he also has to wait until the protesters leave before he can start cleaning. There have been days when he missed the last train home or public transport was suspended because of the protests, and he ended up spending the night at the refuse collection point, curled up on the hand cart he uses to transport bags of rubbish.

Cleaners in Hong Kong have long endured poor working conditions, exploitation, discrimination and lack of welfare. They earn an average of HK$9,643 (S$1,693) per month, well below the city’s average of HK$17,500, according to official data.

According to the union, anyone on duty who leaves their work without notice will be regarded as being absent without leave, and can be fired without compensation. The cleaning contractors may also be punished and fined by the FEHD.

“Most cleaners don’t dare leave their shifts when clashes break out, even when tear gas is being fired. They are concerned about being punished or fired by their companies,” says union organiser Leung Tsz-yan.

Some contractors, however, have begun allowing their cleaners to leave work early to avoid being caught in the protests. Cleaner Cheng, 73, who asked to be identified by only his surname, says the refuse collection point in Prince Edward, in Kowloon, now closes at 9pm instead of midnight.

The Prince Edward MTR station has been a flashpoint for clashes since August 31 after protesters entered the premises and vandalised the place, and police officers charged at them with batons and pepper spray.

Protesters accused the police of brutality, with rumours circulating that three people died. Although the authorities have debunked the rumours, protesters have continued gathering outside the station and built a makeshift shrine there.

For Mr Cheng it has all meant more work. Aside from everyday garbage, he now has to deal with what the protesters leave behind, including bricks, burnt rubbish bins and flowers left at the shrine.

“Bouquets of flowers appear each night outside the station, and we have to sweep away the withered petals left all over the ground the next morning,” he says.

Kwok Chi-wah, 64, who is in charge of cleaning services in a part of Mong Kok, says he has told the cleaners reporting to him to stop work and return to the refuse collection point immediately if clashes erupt. “Their safety is of the utmost importance,” he says.

Ever since protesters began burning garbage bins and using them to block roads, the cleaners have had one more chore. Mr Kwok says that before any big rally or demonstration, the cleaners collect the bins from the streets and keep them in the collection point.

Union leader Ms Leung says the cleaners are hampered by the lack of access to the latest information which can help keep them safe. Many are elderly, and some are from ethnic minority groups such as Nepalese and do not speak Chinese or English, she says.

“Most of the time, they don’t know what’s happening or what to do when clashes break out,” she says.

The union wants more done to protect these workers. “Although the government contracts out cleaning work to private companies, it should still take responsibility to protect cleaners who work hard to keep the city clean and tidy,” Ms Leung says.

For a start, the union hopes the government and its contractors will ease the rules and let cleaners stop work without fear of being punished if clashes break out near them.

They also need protective gear, including better-quality masks, like the N95 mask, gloves and goggles, the union says. As many protests are planned and the police are informed in advance, it also wants cleaners to be informed early.

Ms Leung feels the government should set up a special team to clean the mess left behind by protests, including tear gas residue, instead of leaving the job to general cleaners who are inadequately equipped.

“Currently, cleaners use the same tools they use for regular work to clean the mess from protests. Besides the potential health risks, we don’t know if they are effective in cleaning protest sites,” she says.

Labour sector lawmaker Jonathan Ho Kai-ming says the government should provide clearer guidelines to help cleaners avoid the areas where clashes occur or to stop work. An FEHD spokesman said the department had already taken steps to keep its cleaning staff as well as its contractors’ workers safe.

“If protests or large-scale public events that might affect the safety of cleaning workers occur, the FEHD will suspend the relevant public cleaning services and arrange for the workers to work at safe and appropriate locations,” he said.

Cleaning work will resume only when conditions at the affected area return to normal, he said. The department has also issued its contractors the recommended procedure for cleaning tear gas residue, and the spokesman said it would continue making improvements.

“Contractors should provide adequate personal protective clothing, equipment, and safety training for their employees and appropriate work arrangements,” he said.