Five days a week, 50-year-old Patsy (not her real name) goes to work and toils for six hours, sometimes more, and at the end of the month she takes home $35,000 which is not sufficient to sustain her and her minor son.
In another region, 55-year-old Carol (not her real name) toils at the same job, she takes home $45,000 but this is also not enough to support her.
Both women are sweeper/cleaners who for years have been short-changed by successive governments. They all toil for five days a week and are paid varying salaries, which are below the minimum wage of $50,000. Back in 2013 a PPP/C Cabinet made a decision which called for these workers to be paid the government minimum wage which at the time was $35,000.
Both women refused to have their identities revealed explaining that they are afraid of victimization.
“Sometimes I does feel like we is second-class citizens because I don’t understand how we suppose to make it on this salary and then is not a fair thing, some making less some making more,” Patsy told the Sunday Stabroek in an interview.
Her cry is echoed by many of her colleagues, some of whom recently took to the streets to press their cause and while the Guyana Public Service Union (GPSU) has been engaging the government on the issue, there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel for the affected workers.
Red Thread is one of the organisations which for years has been highlighting the plight of sweeper/cleaners. One of its officers, Wintress White, recently pointed out that the women are working more hours than their contract stipulated, but are only paid for the contracted hours.
“They are also doing what we would call ‘jancalan’ work in the sense that if a headmistress wants food they send the sweeper/cleaner; if they accidentally make a cup of water fall down the sweep/cleaner have to clean it,” White told the Sunday Stabroek.
She pointed out the cleaning work is “hard work” and is “real work” and as such they should be paid “real money.”
Further, White questioned why the sweeper/cleaners are not paid during the July/August holidays the same way teachers are noting that it would be difficult for the mainly single parent mothers to survive without their salaries during those months.
This situation also creates a major difficulty for the mothers with school-aged children to get them prepared for the September term. Additionally, some of the sweeper/cleaners are asked to go into school for a few days during the holiday period and are paid a few thousand dollars while others are not paid.
“How can you afford to send your children to school on that little money and worse yet on no money at all? What are they supposed to eat, is this what you call caring for children?” she questioned, adding that for some of the women it is their only means of income.
The women are not provided with safety equipment such as nose guards or gloves; in one case a cleaner was forced to purchase cleaning material.
White said the government cannot claim that it cares for children when it does not care for their parents’ labour.
‘Grace of God’
Patsy has been working as a sweeper/cleaner since 2010. She has a teenage son who is still dependent on her and according to the woman many months it is only by the “grace of God” that she survives. When she got the job, she worked for $18,000 a month and it was later increased to $24,000 and in 2015 to $37,000.
“I am supposed to work three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon but sometimes, especially in the afternoon, I don’t finish in three hours,” Patsy said.
She explained that at the secondary school where she is employed there are two cleaners and she is assigned to clean the bottom flat. The bottom flat has seven classrooms, six toilets outside, which are used by the children, and two on the inside used by the teachers and a lab.
Under her contract, she must sweep, wipe the walls as far as her hands can reach, mop the classrooms and wash hand towels.
“But nuff days is just too much for me alone and they have a cleaner, who is on full time and she cleans upstairs and is not much work like me. I getting less money but doing more work,” the woman complained.
It was the same complaint Carol had. She believes that the head teacher at her secondary school favours the other cleaner and this sees her being disadvantaged.
“Sometimes I does want give up but wah I guh do at this age? I don’t have to mind any children but I have to mind me self and where I living is not even propa but I got to try. I just wish the government could pay a lil more,” Carol pleaded.
Both Patsy and Carol also complained about the way they are treated by some of the teachers at their schools. They confirmed what White from Red Thread said about being asked to do chores outside of their contracts and being victimized when they refuse.
“The teachers are calling you to do what you are not supposed to do. [They] want you to wash their table cloth, wipe their tables and when it not clean, they writing it in the book and send to the ministry. They eating and throwing things on the floor, teachers are doing that and you have to pick it up,” Patsy revealed.
“But I does tell them they could do what they want and write me up because this job ain’t get me so big so they could do what they want,” an upset Patsy said.
Carol said she has been asked to go on the road and purchase items for teachers and while she does not mind at times at other times “it get overbearing they want you walk in the hot sun, sometimes you ain’t even had a propa breakfast but they sending you out.”
Patsy said at times she has to depend on her adult son and daughter for assistance but they cannot do it on a consistent basis, so many months she and her son struggle.
“I don’t pay rent but if you see this old house I live in, it get so much holes but I don’t have money to do anything to it. The money I getting is not enough and I asking the government to pay we more, we need it is not like we don’t need it,” the woman pleaded.
Another Red Thread officer, Susan Collymore, told the Sunday Stabroek that the sweeper/cleaners are really taken advantage of as some of the head teachers use the contracts as weapons against the cleaners. They would force them to be at their beck and call by threatening to have the contracts withdrawn.
“If the cleaners don’t do what they say then they would say remember I got this contract…,” Collymore said adding that she believes the Ministry of Education should have a say in the contracts signed and the terms and conditions under which the sweeper/cleaners are employed.
The sweeper/cleaners are also denied the opportunity to complain about unfair threatening and are often reminded that it is the head teacher who signs the contract. She pointed out that if the cleaners don’t pick up after the head teachers by sometimes flushing the toilets when they use it or purchasing bread for them they are penalized.
White added that the cleaners are also victimized by head teachers cutting their time. She called on the administration to fix the issue as while it was created before 2015, it has now been over two years and needs to be fixed now.
“You promise us a good life but it seems that a good life only mean them, we ain’t see it yet only you all see it because you all increase your salaries and you all take money that you could give poor people and build D’Urban Park,” an upset White said.
She pointed out that D’Urban Park was not needed since Guyana already has a National Stadium adding that while in opposition the government was against the Marriott but now it is in office money is being spent on the hotel.
“So, you can’t tell poor people foolishness that you ain’t got money, find the money, it is there. You find it and pay the sweeper/cleaners what they supposed to get,” she demanded pointing out that the cost of living is going up steadily.
“Invest the money in families… pay people good wages instead of giving them hand-me-downs. It is funny the way how people does treat poor people like we cause this poorness on ourselves and is not the system that was created to suppress and keep poor people poor,” White said.
She said there was so much hope that there would have been change when the new government came into power but to date there has been no real change that impacted the lives of persons positively.