Doha, Qatar – Doha has some of the most stunning skyscrapers in the region. The high-rises give the city a distinctive skyline, glistening with glass.
But those windows do not shine on their own as dust, rain, smog and the elements dim them. That is when Doha’s “spidermen” jump into action.
Cleaning the windows of a 40-50-storey building is not for the faint-hearted or the uninitiated. It requires training, expertise and no fear of heights to complete a day’s work hundreds of feet in the air.
“When my family first saw the pictures of me working at such a height, they were terrified. Especially my father. It took me years to persuade them,” says Navas, a supervisor at Masa Cleaning Company in Doha who started his career as a rope access window cleaner in 2013.
“Now they’re OK,” he adds.
The 38-year-old father of two from Thrissur in India’s Kerala state says his brother-in-law was the first to know about his job, and it took him a while to digest before revealing it to the family.
“My wife was really scared when she learned about my job. My children are very sporty and often ask me to send videos of window cleaning. But my wife is so afraid that she even refuses to see the pictures of me in action,” says Navas.
“No matter how good you are at mountain climbing, the feeling of descending a high-rise sends shivers down your spine. I would be lying if I say there was no fear when I did my first window cleaning. Every time I descend, I feel like I won a big prize,” he adds.
A window cleaner has to complete rigorous training and receive a certificate from the International Industrial Rope Access Trade Association (IRATA International), which certifies technicians around the world.
Training registrations at the two IRATA-authorised centres in Qatar show the number of spidermen has been rising steadily.
IRATA certifies three levels of rope access technician: Level 1 becomes a window cleaner; Level 2 becomes a mid-level window cleaner; and Level 3 becomes a supervisor.
The spidermen have to retake the exam every three years to advance or keep their current level. If they do not use rope access for more than six months, they have to take a refresher course and assessment.
There are many ways to clean windows – gondolas, scaffolding, boom lifts, etc – but rope access is the most popular as it is easier to use, less expensive and less obtrusive for people inside the buildings.
“Cleaning windows with rope access demands strength, coordination, and dexterity and the ability to handle the stress of working in hot, cold, and dusty weather,” notes Shadi Bakhash, deputy operations manager of Spider Style Tower Cleaning.
“I never feared climbing mountains back home … climbing was part of my life. Frankly, there was a bit of fear when I first descended a tall building as a window cleaner,” says Arjun, a supervisor at Spider Style Tower Cleaning.
Arjun, who started window cleaning in 2008, spent his early life watching mountaineers with their protective gear. Little did the 34-year-old from Pyuthan, about 400 km (249 miles) west of Kathmandu, Nepal, imagine that one day he would don the same safety gear to scale towers.
“There is opportunity in this career. More high-rises are being built every year,” says Arun Bheeshma, a window cleaner at Metro Group Qatar.
While most window cleaners hide the risk involved in their job from family members, Arun, 35, was quite open and proud.
“I love adventure and my family has always supported me, be it my choice of career or my passion. They know about the risks involved in my job. I won’t say that they’re not afraid, but they don’t show it in front of me,” says Arun, a father of two children who are back in Kerala.
The spidermen do more than clean windows; they are skilled rope access technicians who can work anywhere. In Qatar, they decorated Doha towers with posters of key players in the FIFA World Cup 2022 and went up there again to remove them after the event.
“I went to Al Janoub Stadium at Al Wakra to clean it during the World Cup and I thought: ‘I wish I could watch a game here’, as I was cleaning the scoreboard. A few days later, a friend offered me a ticket to see Uruguay take on Ghana at the same stadium. I sat right next to the scoreboard I had cleaned a couple of days ago,” Arun recalls.