When Sumon* was only 17 years old, his mother, who worked as a city sweeper for Dhaka North City Corporation (DNCC), was run over by a car in Mohakhali. She died on the spot.
A quiet and unassuming boy, Sumon looks at the floor while explaining his situation - “I did well in my SSC exams and I was waiting to give my HSC exams, but my fate was different.”
With a disabled father at home and two younger siblings to support, his only option after his mother’s death was to drop out of school.
Sumon’s family received no compensation. Instead, he was offered the job his mother used to do. She earned a meagre Tk7,000 a month. Because of Sumon’s literacy, he was promoted to supervisor status - which brings with it a bonus of Tk1,000 only. Although the City Corporation claimed to be supporting Sumon by paying for his education as well, Sumon and his family denied receiving any such assistance.
Now, with Tk8,000 a month, he pays Tk3,000 rent for a one-room shack in the slum Korail, and spends the rest on food and his siblings’ education.
Fatima’s* eldest sister was the first of her family to migrate to Dhaka. After securing a job as a city sweeper for Dhaka North City Corporation, she brought her two younger sisters to the city and into the same profession as well.
They all earned Tk5,500 a month, which was eventually raised to Tk7,000. That is, until both of Fatima’s sisters died in fatal car accidents while on the job - the eldest in 2010, and the younger one more recently, in 2017.
In both cases, the family was given Tk11,000 only as compensation for the workplace accident. None of the family members were given any other support, and no cases were lodged with the police.
“I have my own children to support, an 11 and a 16 year old - my husband left me long ago. But I now also have to look after my sister’s children. They are only 11 and 8, and their father is not fit to work,” says Fatima.
However, because she left the job in the middle during the time of her eldest sister’s death, she no longer qualifies to earn Tk7,000 a month - she has to make do with Tk5,500.
Fatima now works for the DNCC from 6am to 12pm during the day, and then works as a part-time domestic worker in two different houses to make ends meet.
Huge difference between government and private workers
Sources tend to differ, but it is estimated that around 2,700 cleaners and sweepers are employed by the Dhaka North City Corporation, and around 5,000 sweepers in Dhaka South City Corporation. However, a majority of the cleaners in the North are not recruited directly by the Corporation or are on the master roll - instead, the cleaning contracts are given out to private companies by tender.
And there is a huge disparity when it comes to wages of these different kinds of workers.
“I earn Tk12,000 a month,” said Dilip*, a South City Corporation worker who sweeps the streets and takes out the garbage in the Farmgate area. “We all earn the same amount of money. But when I first got into the job three years ago, I had to pay Tk3.5 lakh as bribes to City Corporation officials. I hear the amount has gone up a lot now.”
This salary amount was confirmed by all the interviewed cleaners who had government jobs and were employed by the City Corporation directly as were the hefty bribes that need to be given to secure these jobs.
However, almost all the workers who call themselves ‘tendered labourers’ - hired by private companies who work for the City Corporation on contract, spoke of wages that never rise beyond Tk8,000 maximum.
“I’ve been doing this job for 17 years, and this is the maximum they have paid me,” said Abu Jar*, an elderly man who lives in the Korail slum and works in the Gulshan-2 area as a cleaner. “I used to try and do other odd jobs on the side, but at this age, it is impossible for me now. My rent for my entire family is Tk6,000 per month - how can I survive on Tk8,000?”
While the wage disparity between the two kinds of workers are striking, other working conditions for both types of workers seem similarly bleak. None of the workers, either government or privately contracted, receive any days off - their wages are given on a daily basis and they have to work at least six hours a day, every day of the week.
“It doesn’t matter whether we are ill or dying, we cannot take time off,” said Akmal*, a privately contracted cleaner working in Banani. “They instantly take away a day’s wages. We have to work everyday, from 6am to 12pm.”
None of the workers receive any days off - their wages are given on a daily basis and they have to work at least six hours a day, every day of the week
None of the workers interviewed had ever been paid overtime or heard of pension schemes, and none of them have ever organised in any way to ask for their rights - as part of a trade union or otherwise. While the City Corporations are meant to equip their cleaners with coats, gloves, face masks and other amenities, very few private workers confirmed having received any of this equipment.
Full time workers with part time rights
According to Hasan Mahmud Rana, a contractor for the company M/S Multi International, the difference in wages is because the government gives the private companies just one budget, with no specifications regarding wage structures.
“When we get the job by tender, we try and keep aside as much as we can as salary, but there is also the VAT and tax that has to be taken into account, and we have to buy all the necessary equipment from that budget as well.”
M/S Multi International employs over 560 workers in Gulshan, Banani, Mohakhali, Baridhara and Shahjadpur areas, but there are a number of other private companies working in this sector as well, all with the same low wage structure for privately hired cleaners.
“However, we try and increase the salary by five to ten percent every year. We pay on a daily basis and give the regular ones two days off a month,” added Rana. He also denied that people were being paid as little as Tk5,000 a month, arguing that as unskilled labour, the salary they receive given the hours they work is a perfectly reasonable amount.
But with living costs in Dhaka rising by 8.44 percent in 2017 alone, this can hardly be considered to be a living wage, and we found no evidence of a yearly salary increment amongst workers employed in Dhaka North.
[caption id="attachment_262261" align="aligncenter" width="750"] Photo: Rajib Dhar
When asked about the rights of these workers, Dhaka North City Corporation official Md Iqbal Karim spoke about how it is not possible for the cleaners to have a day off because their wages are given on a daily basis.
“We do what we can for our workers, but the thing is, they are all unskilled labourers. The government salary that they receive is a lot for them.”
However, according to ASM Anisuzzaman Tuhin, advocate at Dhaka labour court, the labour laws of Bangladesh specify that all workers have the right to a day off.
“But the Labour Law is a complicated one, and there are loopholes that people exploit to show that their workers are temporary and therefore are not obliged to receive this benefit. But once someone works for you for a certain amount of days, you are usually legally bound to give holidays.”
High risk of accidents
On top of the low wages and absence of basic benefits faced by these cleaners, there is also an added risk of accidents. While it is difficult to find exact statistics regarding workplace deaths, it is common knowledge amongst the cleaners of Dhaka that road accidents are a real risk at work.
Under the Bangladesh Labour Act 2006 (amended 2013), the maximum amount of compensation which may be awarded in cases of workplace deaths to the dependents of a deceased worker is taka one lakh. However, according to both Rana and Karim, the City Corporation does not have a separate mechanism to process such claims, and any money given to the workers in such cases is purely for “humanitarian reasons”.
According to Sumon, Fatima and their colleagues, the most a worker can hope for in the case of fatality or accident at work is inclusion into the workforce of another family member.
“I keep telling my bosses that what if I die? Will I only get a measly Tk11,000 too?” asks Fatima. “They will die too one day. They should have more pity for us.”
And what about salary hikes or days off?
“If we ever ask for anything like this,” says Akmal, “our seniors just say - who asked you to work here? We have to take what we are given. There is no one to speak for us.”
Names have been changed to protect their identities.