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Will we ever give cleaners the wages they deserve?

  • Published at 09:26 pm March 7th, 2019
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Bulbuli Akter, a 50 year old private cleaning staff of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University Rajib Dhar/Dhaka Tribune

Privately contracted cleaners, even in the formal sector, are living off subsistence earnings

Cleaning jobs – whether it is households, offices or hospitals – are almost always done by women in this country. The plight of domestic workers and the poor salaries and benefits they are offered, as well as the abuse they often face, has gotten greater focus in the media during the last few years, and while a Domestic Worker Protection and Welfare Policy 2015 does exist, very little of it has so far been implemented. 

However, even less has been said about the women who work in these jobs in formal organisations, especially hospitals and for the city corporations, where they are often contracted out via private companies.Does working in the formal sector, and not in the informal domestic labour market, mean they are able to avail certain rights? 

A huge divide between private and government workers

Bulbuli Akter, a 50 year old private cleaning staff of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University (BSMMU), was sweeping the eighth floor of the hospital’s C Block when this correspondent found her. She looked tired and gloomy, and was reluctant to share her story at first. Her first response was - “what will be the benefit of this? It is useless, nothing will change.” 

She eventually said, “I am an operation patient and I don’t feel like I have fully recovered. But what can I do? I have to work. There is no alternative way to save my life.”

After some coaxing, she finally expressed her frustration at her low salary, and how although she has been working for 12 long years, she has not received the salary increment she feels she deserves, based on her experience. 

“I joined at the salary of only Tk1200 per month at Shishu Hospital 12 years ago. Then the company I work for transferred me to BSMMU seven years ago. During this time, my salary increased to Tk3000. In the last seven years, it has only increased by Tk1000. Now I get Tk4000 only.” 

Bulbuli’s story is similar to many working class women in Dhaka. Her husband left her a long time ago and because of her low wages, she was unable to educate her daughter. She was also unable to bear the fees of her own medical treatment and had to take loans to manage an operation on her abdomen, but was able to take very little time off to recover from it. 

Her daughter is married now, but Bulbuli still does not have the means to provide a roof over her own head. She lives in the hospital and sleeps in the corridor or on the floor of the patient wards, and works every day.

“My salary is not enough to survive on. I even eat meals at the hospital, so how can I rent a house in Dhaka city with this low income?” she asked.

“Sometimes the relatives of patients give me tips ranging from Tk20 to Tk100, and I earn around Tk2000 to Tk5000 per month on tips. I can sometimes eat good food with these tips,” she added. 

Although she could not name the company that employs her on a contractual basis for the hospital, Bulbuli did clarify that cleaners who work as government employed staff or are employed directly by the hospital tend to have much higher salaries than her. 

Speaking to 42 year old Shetu Begum, another cleaner at BSMMU, this does seem to be the case. Although she receives her wages on a daily basis, her monthly income averages out to around Tk14,000 to Tk15,500 per month since she is directly employed by the Hospital Director. However, the daily wage basis means she receives no days off. 

“I am not a permanent staff. If I work for 28 days in a month I get Tk14,000 and if I work for 30 days I get Tk15,500,” said Shetu Begum.

Different hospitals but similar situations

This correspondent also visited female cleaning staff in other parts of BSMMU, as well as other government hospitals like Suhrawardy Medical Hospital and Dhaka Medical Hospital. In almost all of these places, the same scenario was found. 

Almost all of the women spoke of working exceptionally long hours, always more than eight hours a day. Some of them start work at 5am and finish as late as 10pm, and others also come in later and work overnight. 

“We work such long hours in the hopes that our salaries will be raised,” shared Bulbuli Akter. 

Komola Akhter, who is a government employed cleaning staff at Suhrawardy Medical Hospital, said, “I am a fourth grade worker now, but the salaries from the first grade are around Tk8000, and then are raised the longer you are there. We (government staff) all receive our salaries depending on which grade we are in. Our official work hours are from 8am to 2pm, but I usually have to work till 7.30pm.” 

“Sometimes I have to work longer because this is a hospital and cleaners are always needed,” she added. “I don’t mind the hours because I can earn more money from patients by providing extra services to patients. I am always in need of extra cash since two of my children are studying now.” 

However, even though the hours are long, the government employed cleaners all tend to get a salary that is much higher than the cleaners who are contracted out by private companies. Fahima Begum, who also works in the same hospital but on a private contract, only receives Tk3000 as salary every month. Since this is too low to survive on, she is always looking for extra work on the side. Usually this comes in the form of providing services to hospital patients, but sometimes she also does the work for another cleaner if they are unable to come in so she can also get their salary for the day. 

“I have two children, including one disabled son,” shared Fahima. “Both my children are very young. I can’t afford any rent, so I sleep in the hospital corridors with my two sons.” 

Rehana Begum, another cleaner in the same hospital, earns Tk7000 per month by working from morning till evening and sometimes even at nights. She is a privately contracted cleaner. 

“I sweep the floors, wash bathrooms, help nurses, provide services to the patients, clean beds, and I also educate all of my children,” said Rehana. “One of my sonsis studying law and working, my elder daughter is married and my youngest daughter is doing an honours degree. If I don’t work extra hours, how can I manage their education?”

The company J Deluxe Channel is in charge of providing cleaning staff to the Suhrawardy hospital and provides 98 cleaners to the hospital, out of whom 72 are women. According to the company’s outsourcing in-charge Md Biplob, “men do not want to come in this sector since they think it is dirty work and the salary is too low. The authoritiesalso prefer to recruit women in this sector because they are more attentive to their work.” 

When asked why the companies pay so little to the cleaners, he argued that the women who do these sorts of work are so needy that even these salaries are like a blessing to them. “It may be difficult for you to understand but for many of these women, these wages can change their lives.” 

City corporation cleaners face equally dire circumstances

There is clearly a huge divide between privately contracted out cleaners and government employed cleaners in hospitals in the city, but what about the people who keep our city clean Although most of them are employed in the formal sector, they too are treated as informal employees and given very little of their basic rights as workers. 

According to cleaner Asma Begum, who works in the Hatirjheel area, although she works for the city corporation, she is contracted out by a private company, with Tk7,000 salary per month.

“We have to work from 5am till 1pm with no rest, whether it is sunny or raining. But this salary is not enough to survive in Dhaka. The people who work as government employees have double the salary I have. My husband is a rickshaw-puller so his income is also low. If I could earn around Tk12,000 then both of our income would be enough to maintain our family,” she said. 

On the other hand, another cleaner Rina Akter shared another aspect of the work that many women are involved in. She is not contracted by a company, nor is she a government employee – she works instead of another cleaner who has the position but does not do the job, and is paid Tk2000 for her services. 

“The person who actually has the job collects the salary every month and then gives me Tk2000,” she shared. “I work three hours a day, and the rest of the time I work in a house as a maid. Sometimes I also collect waste from people’s homes and take them to the big dustbins for a small fee. The money I earn is nothing, but I have to try and get by.”  

Another cleaner in the Moghbazar area Amena Begum said, “We help keep the city clean. But in the end it is more like doing an odd job because the payment is so low. We are only doing this to survive. There are men who get recruited into these jobs too, but most of them are in higher posts. Our supervisors are always male and their salary is of course much higher then us.”

All of the street cleaners this correspondent spoke to were earning daily wages, had no days off and received no support in terms of health treatment. 

“We can barely meet our daily needs, so how do we take treatment for health?” asked Amena Begum.