Street cleaners want medical privileges [Archives:2007/1026/Health]

February 19 2007
Street cleaners salaries arent enough for their basic needs.
Street cleaners salaries arent enough for their basic needs.
Al-Migdad Dahesh Mojali
& Nawal Zaid

People talk about cleanness and dirtiness and their respective impacts on the environment, as well as the budget and government expenditures on cleaning the nation. However, they rarely want to discuss the difficult circumstances and life stories of most city street cleaners.

Unfortunately, those who clean the streets and take the rubbish from in front of our houses are always in danger and exposed to numerous skin and respiratory diseases without any care paid by the state.

“I constantly have a fever due to being in the sun all day. I also suffer skin diseases, especially on my hands,” complains 40-year-old street cleaner Abdullah M. Sa'eed.

Mohammed Obad, 30, comments, “I suffer from asthma because of the dusty air I inhale while sweeping the streets.”

Omar Abdu Khalil, 23, explains, “I have tuberculosis and when I sweep the street, I feel strong inflammation in my chest. Consequently, I stay at home many days without payment. If I work, I feel sick, but if I stay home, I'll have nothing to give my children.”

Women and girls also experience their share of diseases, as 18-year-old Nujoud Al-Khamisi describes, “I experience constant hypersensitivity in my eyes and nose. I'm sometimes affected by allergies on my hands and, as a result, I rub them until they bleed.” She adds, “Because of working in the cold weather, my bones ache strongly.”

Economic situations play an important role in the decline of health and dissemination of diseases among street cleaners. Sa'eed notes, “My salary is YR 15,000 and YR 3,000 overtime, but the problem is that I can't meet all of my family's needs. Consequently, my family and I suffer malnutrition, as well as other diseases.”

Al-Khamisi describes her situation, “I make YR 20,000, which goes for house rent and trivial amounts of food for us. Consequently, I have no money to buy medicine or good food or fruit. Believe it or not, I've never gone to a doctor.”

Dermatologist and allergist Dr. Mohammed Ali Al-Shami was surprised when asked about the most common skin diseases among street cleaners, saying, “It's difficult to say which diseases affect street cleaners because I've never treated any of them.”

He continued, “However, generally speaking, many factors contribute to skin diseases, such as skin color, environment and economic situations. We know that street cleaners' economic situations are bad and their environment is polluted; therefore, they're exposed to infections like hepatitis and allergic conjunctivitis.”

Most street cleaners work eight to 12 hours a day, beginning at around 7 a.m. or earlier and finishing during the afternoon. They may work overtime and on weekends after public events, such as official holidays. Working outside every day of the year – whatever the weather – the work of street cleaners is active, involving walking, bending and lifting. However, while carrying out these activities, street cleaners don't have protective clothing, such as waterproof clothing, overalls, gloves and high-visibility jackets.

Jamal Juhaish, general manager of the Capital Secretariat's cleaning project, says, “Many street cleaners are affected by skin and respiratory diseases as a result of being in a polluted environment, while others have lost body parts due to car accidents.”

Sana'a University associate professor, Dr. Ahmed Al-Hammami, a bronchoscopy specialist, explains, “As a result of the polluted and dirty environment where they spend most of their time, street cleaners are exposed to infections like bronchitis, asthma, tetanus and hepatitis.”

Many government employees are provided health care, medical insurance and, sometimes, financial aid during illness; however, street cleaners don't receive any health care or financial assistance to help them when going to the hospital.

Mohammed Nasser, 34, describes, “I lost my leg in a car accident, after which I spent much time and money. However, the administration only gave me YR 10,000, which is nothing because the treatment cost approximately YR 70,000.”

Abdulaziz Yeslam 28, recounts, “I lost my hand in a machine while working, but the administration gave me only a month's medical leave. They then transferred me to an administrative position within the cleaning project because I can't work as a street cleaner anymore.”

Street cleaners who work around hospitals are more exposed to infection by virulent diseases like AIDS and hepatitis than other cleaners are; however, they receive neither health care nor financial aid. Some employees even provide their own protection.

“My colleagues and I work near a hospital. We realize that hospital waste contains broken glass, sharp instruments, needles and contaminated blood, but our administration doesn't give us gloves or socks, so we buy them ourselves in order to protect ourselves,” 22-year-old Ayman Najeeb explains.

Not only is Ministry of Health careless about the health of street cleaners, it also is careless about the health of the cleaning project's administration, where neither cleaners nor administration employees are subject to periodic physical checkups to protect against the prevalence of diseases.

“We've never been subjected to physical checkups since we began this work,” notes Ayesh Ali.

Juhaish agrees with most of the cleaners' complaints, commenting, “Honestly, neither street cleaners nor we receive health care or physical checkups and it's the same with those cleaners around hospitals.”

Regarding the administration's aid for the sick or those who've had accidents, he says, “I admit that some street cleaners have had accidents wherein some lost hands and others lost legs. However, we grant an open-ended holiday until they recover and even take over their treatment expenses. Once they return to work, we don't let them work as street cleaners but rather as guards or any other position suitable to their physical and health conditions.”

As a result of the extreme poverty and although they are below the working age, many young boys and girls join the street cleaning project in order to earn their livelihood despite the modest salary earned in proportion to their efforts. In order to secure their acceptance, they pay the supervisor many thousands of riyals because the supervisor is in charge of employing street cleaners.

One administration manager who asked to remain anonymous remarked, “There are many underage street cleaners, particularly ages 13 and 14. Despite this, they are accepted into the cleaning project and work like the other street cleaners. I think they do it out of extreme poverty because many have nothing to eat.”

He mentioned the administration's aid offered to those street cleaners affected by disease, saying, “The administration gives them money, but if treatment costs exceed YR 10,000, they won't give anything.”

Juhaish points out, “According to Yemeni law, the working age is 16. We accept [the underage children] because their ages on their identification cards are over 16; therefore, I have no justification to reject them. Actually, the district supervisor is in charge of employing street cleaners. Sana'a is divided into districts, each with its own supervisor responsible for everything in that district, including street cleaners.”