Since the COVID-19 outbreak, there has been much focus on the efforts of healthcare workers and security personnel who are working tirelessly to contain the virus spread. But there’s another group of workers who have attracted less attention. These are the thousands of municipal workers who have continued to work around the clock to keep our urban spaces clean. Although the city streets are quiet these days, municipal workers can be seen going about their daily work, sometimes lacking proper protective gear, keeping our towns and cities clean and hygienic. Daily Mirror recently spoke to some of these workers who, despite their back-breaking jobs,
have been deprived of basic workers’ rights.
Agnes Perera (62) starts her 12-hour workday at 5 am. “I come to Gangarama by 6 am by public transport, and work till 6 pm every day,” she said. She gets just Rs 750 per day, including overtime. “My husband also works here, and we both get the same salary.” There’s an equal amount of men and women workers. Agnes lives on rent and her son is in Grade 9. She plans to work as long as she physically can. “I pay our rent, water and electricity bills, and other expenses including my son’s education from this salary,” she said. Additionally, the Perera’s find themselves trapped in a debt cycle. “As soon as we get our salaries we take another loan for monthly expenses as we have only a little money remaining after repaying our monthly debts.”
A total of 12 people work in Agnes’ group, of which 6 are senior citizens. Agnes said they did not receive any tea or refreshments during breaks. “Sometimes passers-by give us lunch packets. But not every day. Days like that are the hardest.” On such days, she skips lunch and has dinner at home. “Our supervisor is considerate of us. Whenever we tell him we are short of money for tea, he helps us. Honestly, I’m still working here because of him, even though our salary is low,” she said. Agnes and her colleagues are contracted workers, and the supervisor checks on them daily.
No protections or benefits
The International Labour Organization (ILO) approved National Worker’s Charter (NWC) calls upon the state to ensure minimum wages for workers. These wages must be reviewed and increased according to the cost of living and other factors. The NWC further stresses that women should be given equal employment opportunities and have proper welfare and protections.
But Rani from Modara spoke of poor benefits and protections. “We do not have insurance if we fall sick. But if we have an accident during work and it is dangerous only, we get insurance.” Rani has three children and two grandchildren who are without a father. She said workers like herself are denied paid sick leave. “If we fall sick and stay at home for one or two days we don’t get paid.” Additionally, they are denied any personal leave and must work throughout the year. “We do not get holidays for New Year or Christmas to be with our families. We work on all Poya days as well,” she said. “If an important person goes on the road, we must come before 6 am and start work.”
Because workers are not entitled to paid or medical leave, their children and families often go hungry on days they cannot work. Workers don’t get a pension either. This is despite the NWC saying a social security scheme must be established for workers after retirement. The NWC further recommends that employers provide medical insurance for workers and give special cover like employment injury benefits for those exposed to workplace risks.
"Because workers are not entitled to paid or medical leave, their children and families often go hungry on days they cannot work"
Municipal workers can, however, complain to the police if people taunt them or carelessly dump garbage on the road. “Fortunately no one can harm us on the road as we are being monitored and provided security from the police,” Rani said. Like Agnes, she said workers could not afford daily lunch packets, but people sometimes provided them lunch or tea. “Society does not look down on us. People need us.” She said they had been promised a salary increase in a few months. “We are not so aware of the political situation. But the only thing we ask for is a salary increment.”
Ranjith, who has been a sweeper since 2000, said their current salaries and facilities were better than what they were 20 years ago. “We are provided with uniforms now, and get overtime as well,” he said. Ranjith begins work at dawn by sweeping the road and then works on the lorry from 8 am onwards. He has two sisters and a niece to look after. He said garbage collection was classified according to the days of the week. “We collect polythene, plastic, perishable items separately from houses on each day.” However, sometimes households were empty when workers went to collect garbage, but then people would complain to supervisors that the garbage was not cleared. “I hope people will be more helpful and leave their garbage in the designated places. Sometimes people throw garbage on the road and down gutters. Then it is hard for us to do our job. I ask everyone to be supportive, as our lives depend on this job” he said.
Lack of privacy and sanitation
Meanwhile, Rathnawathie from Mt Lavinia said women workers were deprived of privacy and sanitary facilities, like washrooms. “We use the washroom of the nearby public ground, and sometimes they close it whenever we want to use it,” she said. Rathnawathie, who is bringing up three school-going children without her husband added, “We don’t have a suitable place to change into our cleaning uniforms. We cannot go home in this uniform in public transport. We must get dressed properly and go home.” She appealed for proper sanitary facilities, especially for women workers. But her face was filled with hopelessness.
"Minimum wages for workers must be reviewed and increased according to the cost of living and other factors"
Another worker, A.G. Perera from Moratuwa, a father of three, said despite working for 10 years his family did not have a proper place to live in. He added workers weren’t given transport to and from work. “It’s hard for us to travel early in the morning and late at night. We don’t even have a way of drinking water when we get thirsty. Some old people are working with us too. They are doing this job only because they don’t have any other way of living,” he said. Rasika Prasad, also from Moratuwa, said their team was lucky to not have any use of illegal drugs or alcohol among them. His relief highlighted workers’ fears regarding the high tendency for illicit activities invading their workspace.
Further, many workers were suffering from respiratory difficulties and other illnesses, making them vulnerable to COVID-19 and other diseases. These workers need special care and equipment, in addition to proper benefits and protections. Their dignity and our well-being depend on it.
Pics by Nisal Baduge