Sweeping odds: the life of Lagos street sweepers

On this International Women’s Day, as we #PressforProgress The Guardian celebrates these Nigerian women sweeping against global odds.

Every morning, Sherifat wakes up early. Her work as a highway cleaner in Lagos State demands that she hits the road at dawn. As tedious and dangerous as her daily task on the job is, she is happy to keep the streets of Nigeria’s most populous state clean.

“Eko o ni baje,” she says, repeating a statement that has become more popular than Lagos State’s official slogan. “We are very happy. We are LAWMA sweepers. I have been doing this job for the past 11 years.”

Sherifat and her colleagues that The Guardian spoke to are part of a happy gang who do a job that has proven, repeatedly, to be a sad one. Underappreciated by both employers and the society they serve, these women carry on, dragging their heavy loads of despair with them.

The task of keeping Lagos clean is handled by Lagos State Waste Management Authority (LAWMA) and a few companies, but the sweepers accuse them all of shady practices and delay in salary payment.

“I was initially with LAWMA but I left because of inconsistency in salary payment,” another sweeper, Adebunmi, says.

A LAWMA spokesperson, however, told The Guardian that the agency had never directly employed highway sweepers. And with the new Lagos waste disposal law now in effect, LAWMA, according to the spokesperson, has fully become a regulator in the state.

For Adebunmi, however, leaving ‘LAWMA’ for another company came with its own headache, one that is constant and heart-breaking.

“₦200 is removed from my monthly salary with this organization that I joined,” continued Adebunmi. “If we get to work late, ₦1,000 would also be deducted from our salaries. They do not allow us to rest. The job is very strenuous.

“What should be done by two people is what one person is apportioned. If the organization needs to employ 20 workers, it would only employ 10 or 7.

“Before the job got really unbearable, we asked that more people be employed to ease the stress but the organization refused. Once the C-caution signboard given to us gets spoilt, we improvise with buckets or other materials.”

The sweepers also complained of a myriad of other problems, including lack of insurance cover, being overworked, having to replace stolen work tools from out of their own pockets, involuntary deductions from their meagre salaries, and unwillingly having to contribute to buying gifts for their bosses at Christmas.

Better days may be ahead for these women, if a source at the Lagos Ministry of the Environment, who craved anonymity, is to be believed. He told The Guardian earlier in the week that with the launch of the ‘Cleaner Lagos Initiative’ in 2017, the state is looking to address the drawbacks of the ‘Street Sweeping Programme.’

“The state authorities would expand the scope of the current Street Sweeping Programme from 4,500 sweepers to 27,500 Community Sanitation Workers (CSWs) to cover all of the 377 political wards in the State,” the source says.

Each CSW will receive uniforms, shoes, caps, gloves and other Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) before resuming work and receiving cleaning equipment.

377 Ward Resident Contractors (WRCs) would be employed while a competent Human Resource Management Company (HRMC) would also be engaged to train and deploy the CSWs to the WRCs that would then manage and supervise their activities.”

Although Lagos says the new scheme will deepen the economic complexity to create numerous new business opportunities for its people, it is hoped the women who form the fulcrum of the initiative will be empowered to live better lives to achieve a win-win situation. As McKinsey Global Institute says in its 2015 report, advancing women’s equality and empowerment can add about $12 trillion to the global economy. On this International Women’s Day, we choose to celebrate these Nigerian women sweeping against global odds.

The names of the sweepers mentioned in the story have been changed to protect their identities. This story is told with support from Code For Africa.

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