The sweeper/ cleaners’ unending plight

Once you hear the sweeper/cleaners’ story you come to understand that it is more than an industrial relations engagement. It is, in truth, a humanitarian circumstance that ought not to be allowed to pass quietly, without remedy, and frankly, the sooner the remedy, the better. We are at a juncture where the origins of the problem are altogether irrelevant.

It falls to the present administration to apply the remedy, despite the fact that the problem, from its inception, was not one of their doing. It is altogether common for an incoming administration to inherit awkward challenges and that, indeed, has been manifestly the case in this instance.  Where such situations cry out for urgent remedial attention, the responsibility falls to the incumbent. The sweeper/cleaner issue is a case in point.

One might add too that this is just the sort of problem that an administration holding forth promises of ‘a good life for all’ would presumably wish to put behind it in the shortest possible time.

As with so many things in the Republic that require speedy remedy, the sweeper/cleaner issue has dragged on. The discourse between the government and the Guyana Public Service Union (GPSU) has been confined mostly to intermittent exchanges on paper that ultimately go nowhere. The problem is that the circumstances of sweeper/cleaners do not equip them to wait out this interminable delay in arriving at a settlement. This is not a consideration that should be overlooked for much longer.

The latest round of demonstrations in the capital by the sweeper/cleaners from various parts of the country appears to be part of a pattern, the exercise of an option pursued by the union intermittently, but one which, in truth, is little more than a short-term attention-getter. Some analysts of trade union behaviour may even be inclined to see the demonstrations as a thinly-veiled image enhancement initiative on the part of a union seeking to regain at least some of the traction lost with its own members. Public demonstrations that have about them underpinnings of seemingly militant behaviour, have their own public appeal. That, however, does not excuse what, up until now has been a response on the part of the government that appears to be lacking in intent in terms of a preparedness to put the problem behind it quickly.

The travails of the sweeper/cleaners are considerable. Their chores range from cleaning what, frequently, are the Augean Stables of school toilets abused by hundreds of frequently indifferent and insensitive children, to fetching buckets of water over considerable distances in instances where there is no running water in schools. And as one young woman told this newspaper during an encounter earlier this year, “Sweeper/cleaners are everybody’s eye-pass.”

Some of them take home as little as twenty thousand dollars a month for six-hour work days that frequently extend to eight hours and more. Even officials at the Ministry of Social Protection concede that the conditions of work of sweeper/cleaners are, to say the least, unpalatable. Meanwhile, issues pertaining to maternity benefits and various other conditions of service denied them are issues over which the sweeper/cleaners have fumed and fretted for years. Some of these women, incidentally, have endured these conditions for periods in excess of a decade. At the very least, the union says, they should be paid the national minimum wage.

If providing cleaning services at the nation’s schools falls into the category of honest work, the exertions of the job far outweigh the extent of the rewards, even when account is taken of the fact that there are extended (holiday) periods when the services of the sweeper/cleaners are not required. The union has argued, with some justification, that those periods must be balanced against the fact that in many instances the actual conditions of service including the hours of work, are considerably at variance with the contractual stipulations. In those instances, the union says, the sweeper/cleaner must simply grin and bear it. Say what you like, their conditions of service amount to an overwhelming injustice, no less.

The union says that while government’s responses to its appeals for urgent remedy have been dripping with expressions of good intentions, those have not gone much further. The union, for its part, appears to have settled for engagement on the matter in fits and starts, an approach which creates little pressure on government to go into emergency mode on the issue. At intervals, the sweeper/cleaners are trotted out by the union to chant, carry placards and tell moving stories about the challenges that inhere in working for hopelessly inadequate wages while serving, simultaneously, as mothers and stand-in fathers. They are living, almost always, at their wits’ end, never really coming any closer to a hike in pay which, even if and when it happens, would still put them a million miles always from anything even remotely resembling a comfortable living. When you hear these stories you are inclined to become cynical about official assertions that have to do with affordability, the pertinent point here being that such amounts as it will cost the public treasury to have us do right by these women is really a modest price for a government parading such credentials as this one is.

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