Taiwan - concerned about cleanliness

17th of July 2019
Taiwan - concerned about cleanliness

The Taiwanese cleaning industry is getting a little bit bigger every year, as it is turning from a seller’s market to a buyer’s market, resulting in very low payment for cleaners. Yet, when Bobbie van der List travels through the country it seems to be a respected job, and keeping the public spaces clean seems to be ingrained in Taiwanese identity.

In the second half of the 20th century, Taiwan became known as one of the three Asian Tigers for its impressive economic growth. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the by-products of that growth began piling up on street corners and “trash mountains” at the outskirts of cities.

Typhoon-prone Taiwan is particularly vulnerable to contamination from landfill sites that leak into soil and groundwater supplies. Steel factories and heavy construction in Taipei also cause significant air pollution, which reached its worst levels in the 1980s, according to Eugene Chien, Taiwan’s first Minister of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). He noted that by the end of a work day, the white collars of office workers would be lined with soot.

In the 1990s Taiwan, an island with the population of Australia but with less than one per cent of its land mass, decided to construct incinerators to deal with the waste build-up, sparking public outcry about the chemical pollutants that would be released into the air.

This story is particularly striking as the landscape has drastically changed ever since: although there are still calls for pushing back air pollution, and when the wind comes from Mainland China it brings along dark smog clouds. This problematic relationship with the environment also led to some very conscious Taiwanese citizens, who are determined to keep their country clean. Whether that is through professional cleaning companies or very strong trade unions, voices of the cleaning sector are often heard in domestic media, and taken up to the highest political level.

Walking in the city, one might think that cleanliness is not a high priority. In fact, the streets of Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, come across as sloppy at first sight. On almost every street corner you’ll find vendors, the country is said to have the world’s best street food – so food markets are numerous. With a sub-tropical climate, people often live outside for most part of the day – after work they go to the hundreds of night markets that are full of the most delicious street food. It does lead to some districts being overburdened with waste and litter.

But the image of carelessness turns around towards the end of the night, when groups of vendors walk side by side to clean up all that has been left on the ground, they scrub the streets where needed, and make sure to recycle everything in eight separate bags. It is simply remarkable to see how communities ensure their own areas are kept tidy. But one also needs to realise that keeping public spaces free from rubbish is ingrained in people’s consciousness in Taiwan.

I talk with a street vendor, who is known by people in the city of Taipei as Mister Chen. He remembers the darker days, when Taipei’s streets were a mess, and it was not hygienic enough to cook. “Now we have cleaning teams in various street food market. In shifts we go by all the vendors to collect trash, and properly scrub the floors. People naturally take part in this exercise of keeping the streets clean.”

It sounds rather abstract, but in a country in the proximity of mainland China, with smog coming over Taipei, people are all too familiar with the issues modern society is causing and how consumerism can lead to piles of litter. A young man named Wei, who stands with his friends next to a food truck selling smelly tofu, says: “We grew up seeing how the environment increasingly gets polluted. It makes youth extra aware of the importance of cleaning, it is ingrained in our mentality, I suppose.” His friends nod their head. One adds: “It might look a bit dirty now, but we’ll clean it up later!” he reassures me.

I decide to travel to the south of Taiwan, taking the high-speed train to a city called Kaohsiung. Interestingly, often a ride tells you more than the destination you’re travelling to, especially when you write about cleaning. A staff member on the train explains to me how on every stop cleaners make brief inspections to see whether any rubbish has been left behind. Prevention is the best policy. The reality however, is that few people leave their rubbish behind.

In fact when the refreshment trolleys pass through the carriages the staff ask passengers if they have any rubbish. “I think that when we ask people if we can collect their waste they become more aware of the fact that someone is actually taking care of it. So most people take their rubbish with them or hand it over neatly in a plastic bag,” the train crew member tells me in fluent English. A passenger who is sitting next to me agrees, and says that it’s important for travellers to recognise the work cleaners do daily.

More than anywhere else in Taiwan, on the train I witnessed the spirit of the Taiwanese, engaged with the environment and concerned about keeping public spaces clean.

Taiwan is known for developing state-of-the-art technology this is also true for cleaning. I spoke to the Taiwan Cleaning Technology Association (TCTA) to find out what the challenges are for the country’s cleaning industry. One of the board members, Ms Hsieh, shed some light on what she expects over the coming years.

Cleaning industry insight

What are the current challenges for the Taiwanese cleaning industry?  “The accurate technique and cleanliness of products are more and more in demand. Due to the ongoing energy crisis, the design and planning of energy-saving techniques needs to be improved. The methods for removal and filtration of chemical substances in the air of cleanroom  could be better.”

And what do you think can still improve if you look at the Taiwanese cleaning industry? “We can definitely strengthen the research and development of cleaning techniques and improve our methods. We can accelerate talent cultivation and capability building, increase the accuracy of professional training, and improve enterprise training ability, so as to cultivate more professionals, make the industry more attractive for our Asian partners. We can promote our international cooperation plans as well.”

Do you have any insights on the growth of the industry? “We should recruit overseas talents in science and technology and build up advanced skills domestically. We must establish national and large research and development centres and it’s important for us to open up international cooperation and technical exchange.’

What are some uniquely Taiwanese cleaning standards, compared to international standards? “Currently we are collecting data from international standards organisations and research institutions to establish cleaning technical standards, for example National Aeronautics and Space Administration and ISO standards.”

There has been a slow shift towards greater professionalism amongst contract cleaning companies in Taiwan, including a strongly branded image and greater employment training. Can you confirm this, and what kind of training should we think of? “We should be thinking of many different aspects. There are cleanroom courses for biomedicine: the set-up and planning of biosafety in laboratories, then there are medical cleanrooms: pharma company design and TAB (Testing, Adjustment and Balancing). And in terms of industrial cleaning there is a course called Facility System Management (FSM): the design and control of gaseous chemical pollutant in cleanrooms.”

Due to low entry barriers, contract cleaning is likely to remain a very price competitive industry in Taiwan. Should this change? “In response to the low price competition, enterprise should focus on technique improvement to gain an advantage and upgrade the industry as a whole.”

What are the most recent trends? “According to the association of cleaners in Taiwan the market switched from a seller’s market to a buyer’s market, with some product categories encountering unhealthy pricing practices.”


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