Chen Caixiang, a sanitation worker in Changxing county, Huzhou, Zhejiang province, went into a local branch of the Agricultural Bank of China on July 1 to use its water cooler but was turned away by a bank employee.
The City Express newspaper reported that Chen, 62, was collecting water when a bank employee pushed her away, telling the elderly woman he took precedence in use of the watercooler.
"I felt somewhat ashamed and waited beside him until he had finished," Chen told The City Express.
But after getting his own water, the employee refused to allow Chen to use the water cooler,threatening to call police if she insisted on taking water. Chen said she was "dragged out anddriven away from the bank's gate".
The sanitation worker later filed a complaint to the bank about the incident. When the matter was reported in local media, it sparked public outrage, and prompted harsh online criticism of thebank's apparent indifference and lack of respect toward the disadvantaged group.
"They are making money from the public but declined to share plain drinking water with a sanitation worker, where is their conscience?" a netizen commented on the news websitesina.com.cn.
The bank has said its branch director and security guard paid a visit to Chen on Friday andapologized for their actions. Chen said she accepted their apology.
The bank said it has penalized the staff involved.
The bank has also promised that from Friday all its branches will provide free water coolers and welcome all outdoor laborers to take shelter at the bank over the summer, when they will be provided with products for sunstroke prevention.
The incident has prompted a large number of individuals, businesses and organizations across the country to open up their homes and businesses to sanitation workers seeking shelter from the summer heat.
More than 100 businesses in Changxing plan to set up free water stations for sanitation workers.
In Shandong province, more than 6,000 sports lottery shops are open to sanitation workers to use as rest areas.
The city of Xuchang, Henan province, has selected 43 companies as resting areas for sanitationworkers this summer and is enlisting more to provide free water, towels and other products tohelp them battle the extreme heat.
As China's pace of urbanization increased in recent years, so did the number of sanitation workers.
It is estimated there are around 20,000 sanitation workers in each of the country's large cities,including Beijing and Shanghai, and thousands in China's medium-sized cities.
But on Sunday, sanitation workers in Shanghai said society does not respect workers who labor eight hours a day, seven days a week to earn a meager 2,000 to 3,000 yuan ($314 to 471) per month.
Wang Shipeng, a native of Anhui province, said a shady tree is where sanitation workers like him seek shelter from the sweltering summer.
"During our eight-hour work day we are not allowed to be seated for more than 10 minutes during a break and we are told to keep alert to garbage on the street at all times," said the 46-year-old who was hired by Huangpu district government to clean a road near People's Square.
"A resting place with air-conditioning or a fan is a luxurious dream," he said, adding that even the outdoor resting spot has to be designated by his company. "It's just there with a mark under that telegraph pole," he told reporters.
Han Chun, a sanitation worker in Shanghai's financial center, said he had experienced extreme temperatures during his two years on the job.
"It's like sauna and there is just nowhere to escape from the heat during hot days," Han said.
The 42-year-old Anhui native said discrimination against the disadvantaged group was common.
"Many drivers swear at you as they drive past because they think some cleaners block their way, " Han said.
Wu Danli contributed to this story.