The exploitation of sweeper/cleaners

There exists a category of public sector employee, condescendingly titled sweeper/cleaner. In the education sector, which is what concerns us here, the position, as far as we are aware, is occupied entirely by women. The responsibility of the sweeper/cleaner is to ensure the cleanliness and good order of the nation’s state-run schools particularly during the school day, which of course means that their day starts long before the start of the school day itself and ends after school is out for the day.

The sweeper/cleaner’s job is not a pleasant one. It is drudgery, some say. For example, keeping sanitary blocks clean in schools where the facilities are limited and running water is either scarce or non-existent can be an unwholesome and stomach-churning task. The women who do these jobs are, understandably, desperately in need of employment. They are invariably amongst the poorest of the poor. It is reasonable to assume too that they do not always work with smiles on their faces.

And yet, for all the challenges associated with the execution of their duties, the appeals of sweeper/cleaners for minimum conditions associated with decent work and the laws of the land have continually fallen on deaf official ears. The extent to which they have been continually disadvantaged is mind-boggling.

Having been contracted by government to work a six-hour day they find themselves, invariably, working for eight hours daily, five days a week. It seems that their contracts make no provision for annual leave, a meal break, gratuity or pension; this, despite the fact that many of these women have worked at this job for periods exceeding ten years. Out of a meagre monthly wage of $17,996.00 sweeper/cleaners are required to pay their own NIS.

Section (2) of the National Minimum Wage Order dictates that no employed person be paid less than $202.00 per hour. Sweeper/cleaners earn less than that prescribed under the law. The law also dictates that it is the responsibility of the employer of any worker employed under a contract of service to ensure that that worker is registered with the NIS.

Section 3 (1) of the Holiday With Pay Act states that “every worker in employment shall be allowed a period of holiday with pay of not less than one day for each completed month of employment computed from the date of engagement.” Sweeper/cleaners are not covered by that law.

Sweeper/cleaners, we need to remind ourselves, are employees of the state. Not only are they woefully underpaid but they are also denied annual vacation leave and have also been known to work during the Easter, August and Christmas holiday periods.

At best, as we have learnt from President of the Guyana Public Service Union Patrick Yarde, this matter has been the subject of protracted discourse with high officials of the Jagdeo administration and that firm commitments had been given to right this historic wrong. Those commitments, we are told, have not been honoured. We have learnt too that the present administration had, during the 2015 general elections campaign, given an undertaking that it would address the issue of sweeper/cleaners once it was elected to office.

In the face of what is nothing short of a protracted national disgrace the politics of the issue is not a concern of this editorial. One wonders whether, in the face of this long-standing injustice, the Ministry of Education and the schools themselves do not have a responsibility to protest this most blatant of indignities. Government, of course, has been the culpable party.

The GPSU continues to lobby for a fair deal for sweeper/cleaners. It seeks, among other things, to have sweeper/cleaners placed on what is known as the permanent establishment; to have them paid in keeping with the minimum wage; to have a measure of retroactivity applied in the adjustment of their pay; to ensure they are granted annual vacation leave and for a measure of retroactivity to be applied here as well; and to have their NIS contributions paid and more importantly regularized, to ensure that their benefits are not compromised and their years of service are taken account of in the computation of their pensions and gratuity. These, in our view, are entitlements which the government should move to honour without delay.

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