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Cleaners at bottom of Olympic hierarchy feared infection working under grim conditions

Fireworks go off at the closing ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics at the Japan National Stadium on the night of Aug. 8, 2021. (Mainichi/Toshiki Miyama)

TOKYO -- A female cleaning worker for the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics -- held in the teeth of a coronavirus infection surge in Japan -- looks back on the Games with disappointment. "I'd loved the Olympics so much since I was a child. But I was treated like a slave, and I have nothing but sorrow now."

    In her 50s, the woman had been a part-time cleaner at a Games venue in Tokyo. She cleaned up huge amounts of partially consumed food and drinks, constantly in fear of becoming infected with the coronavirus, and spent day after day feeling despondent that she and her colleagues were being treated as disposable, just as all that food was.

    The woman had lost her job at a Tokyo accommodation business aimed at foreigners when it went out of business in April, after overseas visitor numbers plummeted due to the pandemic. She found an ad for a job cleaning Games venues posted by a building management company and applied.

    Training for the job began at the venue on July 1. Though many people setting up the venue were coming in and out, the company never told her and the other workers to disinfect handrails and other areas with alcohol before the Games began. When it came to cleaning the toilets, they were told to stick their rubber-gloved hands into the toilet bowls and scrub them with a towel. The woman was rendered speechless.

    At the time, only some of the woman's fellow part-time cleaners aged 60 and over had got both COVID-19 vaccine shots. "We asked the company to let us use toilet bowl brushes to clean the toilets and that was improved, but I was constantly worried about getting infected," the woman recalled.

    Once the events began, enormous amounts of trash began piling up in the break rooms used by Games staff and officials, and the woman made numerous daily trips to the waste collection site, hauling heavy trash bags. She said that there were many "onigiri" rice balls in the trash. Why? Because many of the foreign Games staff would take just the "yakitori" grilled chicken skewers out of the bento boxed meals, and throw out the rice balls.

    In the Games staff break rooms, officials were free to take drinks provided by the Games sponsors from the refrigerators. Many of the plastic bottles had been tossed out after just one sip, and every time the cleaner found these in the trash bags, she would empty them in the drain in front of the waste collection site. "Once a bottle was taken out of the refrigerator, it became trash. There were a lot of bottles that hadn't even been opened, and I felt disheartened when I had to empty all of them out," the woman remembered.

    The attitude of her employer and the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games toward part-time workers was very cold. The woman worked eight hours per day, with just one 60-minute break. Aside from that break, she was constantly moving -- collecting trash, wiping down handrails and other parts of the venue with alcohol, and cleaning the toilets.

    "If I were to sit for even a little bit, the company that hired me would get a complaint from the organizing committee," she said. "When I felt like my knees would give out if I kept going as I had, I went to sit on a toilet seat in a dark bathroom for just one minute to rest." There were times when lack of communication between the company and the organizing committee led to offensive incidents. She had been collecting trash in the bleachers during a competition at the instruction of the company. But then, she and her colleagues were warned by the organizing committee through the company that they shouldn't be "taking advantage of the commotion to watch the matches in progress."

    "I wasn't trying to make a lot of money or trying to do anything in secret. I was just working earnestly. So I was indignant that that's how I was seen," the woman said.

    The "Olympic Family Lounge" had three luxurious sofas. Cleaners started cleaning break rooms and bathrooms after the day's events ended, the athletes had all left for the day, and the air-conditioning had been turned off. She said the company had told the cleaners to make sure that the Olympic Family Lounge is extra clean.

    The woman said, "I felt that the Olympic aristocracy were at the very top of the hierarchy and we were at the very bottom." When a colleague told the company that they were unable to come one day because they were unwell, the company responded, "We will have people who cannot manage their own health quit," effectively firing them. That colleague was not permitted to work their remaining shifts.

    The pay was 1,500 yen (approx. $13.60) per hour. The woman, who worked for 21 days including her training, ended up with about 180,000 yen (approx. $1,637). "Until now, I'd been enthusiastic about the Olympics through TV and only seen its beautiful side, but I felt like my dreams were dashed. I've worked about 15 part-time jobs in my life, but this one was the worst." she said.

    The woman worked at a company for 13 years after graduating from college, until she quit due to poor health. Since then, she has been working as a non-regular worker. She does not yet know where her next job will come from.

    (Japanese original by Shunsuke Sekiya, Tokyo City News Department)

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