Street cleaners deserve fair wages, safe work environment

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There is an old Arab story about cheating. Once a person purchased purportedly good quality dates from a trader but found later that the dates were of inferior quality. At the same time, he found that the trader also cheated him by giving him less dates than he paid for. The consumer then protested that he was a victim of double cheating.

Similar is the case with our street cleaners. The winners are the contracting companies and establishments that offer to clean cities and sign contracts worth hundreds of millions of riyals. In the execution of these contracts, these firms come to an agreement with cleaning workers through labor recruitment offices. These contracts with workers are nothing but a mockery, as they do not guarantee any decent pay and perks for the workers. These workers are forced to work hard in very difficult conditions and in high temperatures for a meager salary in addition to poor housing and low quality food.

I provide this introduction to draw attention to the poor state of affairs of street cleaners in the Kingdom in light of a report published by Okaz newspaper. The article, titled “14 firms penalized for forcing workers to work under scorching sun,” was prepared by Ahmad Al-Souqan, a reporter §in Madinah. The newspaper reported that it was found that these firms violated the midday work ban directive issued by the Ministry of Labor and Social Development. According to the directive, all employers have been instructed to ensure that their workers stay out of the sun for three hours from 12 p.m. to 3 p.m. during the three-month period from June 15 to Sept. 15.

Replying to queries from Okaz, Ahmad Al-Sinani, director of media and public relations at the branch of the ministry in Madinah, said that inspection teams from the Labor Office in Madinah and other branches in the governorates made surprise visits to work sites to find out whether there were any violations of the midday work ban. The teams detected 14 violations and took appropriate punitive measures against the offenders.

He said that the ministry’s regulations banning midday work in the sun aimed at ensuring the safety and health of workers and at providing them with a healthy work environment. He called on employers to strictly adhere to the midday work ban regulations. The official noted that the ministry is working hard to provide a safe working environment for those engaged in various jobs as well as to enhance the efficiency of preventive measures so as to reduce occupational injuries and diseases and protect workers from accidents.

Al-Sinani did not mention the nature of the penalties slapped on 14 companies and establishments that failed to abide by the ministry’s midday work ban directive. These are often symbolic penalties, which may be a warning or a symbolic fine that will not deter those firms that do not treat their workers humanely. There are different manifestations for such ill treatment, such as making employees work in extreme temperatures in the sun and neglecting their rights especially in the payment of reasonable salaries for their work.

It cannot be considered fair by any means that these workers, who labor under difficult conditions, draw very low salaries. Moreover, they are forced to live in a very poor environment with large numbers of people sleeping in a single room. They are also served a poor quality of food that is not suitable for workers who are engaged in strenuous and difficult jobs. These expatriate workers were cheated by recruitment agencies, in connivance with the representatives of contracting companies. They were given false promises that turned into a mirage upon their arrival in the Kingdom.

Many writers, including myself, have written about the injustice meted out to street cleaners by contracting companies and firms after signing cleaning contracts worth hundreds of millions of riyals. These companies set aside only a few crumbs of the huge amount that they receive to be given to their workers. We have called upon those concerned to provide fair treatment to these workers by giving them attractive salaries and s good work environment so that they feel satisfied and do their work sincerely.

I have repeatedly pointed out that the salaries paid to these workers are insufficient, unfair and unreasonable, and that workers, who draw a monthly salary of between SR300 and SR400, will be forced to beg for alms from passersby so that they can live like human beings. And given the circumstances, these workers cannot be blamed for doing so.

I have also said that the municipalities that supervise the execution of cleaning contracts are responsible for this scenario. It is a must on the part of the concerned authorities to ensure that the provisions of a cleaning company’s contract spell out details such as the required number of street cleaners and the equipment needed for them to carry out their designated work. There should also be a provision to ensure a reasonable salary for each of these workers. The workers, who are the key component of the cleaning work, will not work hard unless they get their full rights in terms of their salary and other allowances.

Dr. Ali Al-Ghamdi is a former Saudi diplomat who specializes in Southeast Asian affairs. He can be reached at algham@hotmail.com


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