“Tell me we get paid since the 22nd of December last year and to date we can’t get no money. How we can survive? We have children to support, we already working for lil bit money and now we not even getting the money,” said the frustrated mother of three.
The woman is a sweeper cleaner in the county of Berbice and she said the cleaners at her school and those nearby have not been paid. The pain in her voice is evident.
Sweeper cleaners have been receiving the smelly end of the stick for years and although government, in recent times, has indicated that it is addressing the situation, this marginalised section of workers still suffer.
The woman reached out to me on the telephone and informed me that she is a “faithful reader” of this column and she wanted me to tell her story in her words.
“I don’t want my name to mention because I don’t want to lose this lil work and then you know I don’t want people to know my business because not everybody would understand,” she said in an almost pleading voice.
When I told her that I would call her back in a week’s time to speak to her in-depth and also to ascertain whether she had received her salary she sounded disappointed. I also gave her the undertaking that her name would not be published and that seemed to placate her a bit.
“Oh my! I was waiting on your call since yesterday,” she said when I called her a week and one day after the agreed date.
“No, no, I have not received a cent, no money,” she said when I asked if she had been paid.
“Right now, I am getting by, by the Grace of God. But how long can we go asking family members? How long can you depend on your family?” she asked these questions not expecting an answer.
I listened attentively as she spoke.
“Nobody is saying anything, when you call the regional office they are saying it is not ready. We are not getting no answer,” she said.
“And is not any kind of money, last year it is $20,500 I get paid, now tell me what that money can do? That was Christmas time and that is the last money I get,” she continued.
I asked if she had children because I wondered how she survived the holidays on such a meagre sum.
“I am a mother of three and they are still in school,” she said.
“But what are you putting in their lunch kits?” I could not help but ask.
“Well to tell you the truth, somebody I know does bake and is them does give me thing to put in the lunch kits. And if is a $60 Kool Aid I could buy, I buy it and make a mug a drink and that is what they have to use,” she answered.
“It is only five years now I working as a sweeper cleaner and is not nuff money but I don’t have nothing else to do. My husband and me separate and he use to support me before but now I have to try to do what I can do,” she said.
“I want to plead with those in authority to look into our situation. We are human beings too, it is not easy to know you are working and you are punishing at the same time. First you punishing with lil bit money, now is punishment with no money.
“And is not just the money, the working condition is terrible you would not believe it. If you see the condition of the toilets and we don’t have no long boots, no gloves, no face mask nothing to work with. At the end of the day the toilets does be so terrible, some a dem does flush and yet the children not flushing. They defecating on the ground, when you go in there you find sometimes underwear, vests, sanitary napkin everything there and when you talk it don’t mek sense.”
I could almost feel her anger through the phone as she spoke.
“At the end of the day to tell you the truth sometimes you just want to pack up and walk out. One day when I went to the toilets tears came to my eyes and I said just for survival this is what I have to go through. Me sister I tell you it is not easy to deal with the washrooms,” she continued.
“It is hard. It is hard. Just for survival. One time a sweeper cleaner from another school get sick, it is infection she get from breathing in the nastiness from the toilets. We does talk among ourselves, you know the sweeper cleaners even though we don’t work at the same school and we know it was because of that. Now who will help her?” she questioned.
“And when you complain to the region they would come you know sometimes if the flush not working, they would come and do a quick fix and then when dem gone at the end of the day is right back to square one. But even when the flush working the children not using it,” she said angrily.
“I tell my children I would love for you guys to go school and take you education serious and that all that mommy is doing is for you to get a better life. I say I would not want you guys to go through what I am going through because of survival.
“I ensure that I send my children to school every day, I does shame to beg me family but just fuh dem go to school I does put shame away and beg them,” she added.
I asked her about her ex-husband and what support he gives.
“I do get some help from my ex-husband, but it is still very hard. I have to pay rent and he helps with that. To tell you the truth I know the Lord. I am a faithful church-goer and I know the Lord and when I call on Him, He makes it possible and I can still stand and go through what I am going through,” she testified.
I asked about finding another job.
“To tell you the truth where I am living finding another job is another task and I don’t have any real skills. Domestic is the only other work and to do domestic work that also is not an easy work from conversation with other people,” she said.
“This is all I want to say really,” she said indicating that the conversation was over.
“I just want people to read and understand what we sweeper cleaner have to go through and maybe we could get some help,” she added.
It is a story that has been told several times before, but the suffering of these women continue but I am telling her story still. Just maybe change will come.