Street sweepers are rarely noticed by the thousands of people who pass by them every day.
Nevertheless, they are always there, rain or shine, to clean up trash that passers-by throw on the streets.
Their complaint is that for three months (March to May) they have not been paid, and their appeals to get at least their March and April salaries have fallen on “mere promises.”
“Street cleaners don’t enjoy any rights whatsoever,” Aretha Johnson (not real name), a street sweeper in her mid-sixties told the Daily Observer during the heavy downpour on Friday. “We have worked for nearly four months without receiving our just monthly wages. We don’t have any medical or social insurance. We now survive on begging whoever we meet in the street. We want to work, but get no pay.”
Ms. Johnson is one of Monrovia’s many street cleaners. An unspecified number of her colleagues including Annita Harry are employed by the municipalities and city councils across the country, according to the female cleaner. The rest of them are employed by waste removal companies in Monrovia.
The cleaners remove tons of garbage of all types every day. Despite this, they are poorly-paid, overworked and even maltreated by both their employers and the general public, as recorded in their interview with this newspaper.
Ms. Johnson, a former civil servant, had to work as a street cleaner after retiring.
She and her colleagues earn about US$60 to US$90 a month. But this amount does very little to help them feed their children, send them to school or enable them to live a dignified life.
“You know what? If any of us (sweepers) falls ill, he/she has to underwrite the cost of treatment from his/her own pocket,” Ms. Johnson said as her colleagues nodded in agreement.
She said, “Given the very low salaries we receive, which does not even come on time, most of us cannot afford to buy medicines or pay for treatment at hospitals and clinics.”
US$60 is the average salary for street sweepers in the country.
Annita Harry is assigned to the area around Randall and Mechlin streets, toward Water Street. She says companies employing the sweepers write in their contracts that the sweepers receive a salary of US$120 each. “But this is on paper only,” Ms. Harry intimated. “In reality, the sweepers receive just whatever from US$60 to US$90 every month,” she told the Daily Observer.
The cleaners, wearing their mixed-colored uniforms, start their work with brooms, wheelbarrows and shovels in the early morning. But garbage continues to accumulate everywhere.
Street cleaning is a real problem in any part of the country, especially in Monrovia, where the streets are littered with overwhelming refuse.
The Monrovia City Corporation (MCC) has often blamed garbage collection companies for their failure to keep the streets clean, even though they charge the government hundreds of millions of dollars every year for their services.
But a look into the life and working conditions of the sweepers, who are employed by these “rubbish collection companies, shows why the streets cannot be cleaned,” a bystander retorted in anger.
David Joe, a 54-year-old sweeper, and three colleagues have to clean an eight kilometer area every day. They start work at 6:30 a.m. and must finish by 3 p.m.
“We work really hard to make the streets clean, but there are other class of citizens who are bent on littering the streets with the mindset that the streets must be dirty so that we can continue to work,” he said.
Mr. Joe’s face is wrinkled. He carries his broom and shovel with difficulty and had little time to waste on a newspaper interview that will offer nothing to him in the end. He was even afraid to talk, lest he be punished by his bosses, especially the municipality authorities in Monrovia.
MCC Chief of Communication, Jacob Walker, acknowledged the delay of salary payments by a Monrovia-based sanitation company. “But that was about two months ago, which we have settled with the workers,” Mr. Walker responded.
As for the MCC employees, he said it was unusual for the sweepers to complain about salary delays, “Because every one of us (the staff) is on the same payroll. We are paid regularly. However, I will have to investigate,” Mr. Walker promised.
His colleague, Saah Nyumah, was more open. He said firing workers was the easiest thing for the sanitation company bosses.
Nyumah’s contract with the company should come to an end next year. He said he did not know what he would do if the company did not renew his contract.
“More than 150 other sweepers working for the same company do not know what the future will hold for them when their contracts end next year,” he said, expressing the hope that the company will renew their contracts.
Nyumah, like other sweepers, works eight hours, cleaning the streets every day.
He said he was afraid to lose his monthly earnings of US$75 from the sweeping job, which he uses to feed his two wives and five children who are registered in community schools.