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Sunday, May 26, 2024

Special Report: Untold Story of How Inconsistent Salary Payment Frustrated Cross River Road Sweepers

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By Arinze Chjioke
In this report, Arinze chronicles the pains of how inconsistent salary payment frustrated the lives of Cross River Road sweepers who risk their lives and health to keep the streets clean.
As soon as Mary John hears the bell of St. Charlse Lwanga Catholic Church Essien Town ring at 5am, she jumps out of her bed, reaches for her orange-colored street-sweepers uniform, and begins to trek down to Atekong Street in Calabar, the Cross River State capital where she sweeps.
Sweeping the streets of Calabar is not the best of jobs for John but she does it diligently. She has been on the job for more than ten years now. It usually takes 30 minutes of trekking before she gets to Atekong from her house.
Although she often gets tired after trekking, she bends down and begins to sweep, covering a distance of 20 poles apart and sometimes, another 20 for her daughter who also does the job. It takes her 3 hours to finish for the day. After work, her waist hurts and she finds a place to rest before returning home.
A road sweeper doing her job
On several occasions, she has escaped being attacked by those she describes as bad boys because of how early she comes out. Some of her colleagues have been beaten and had their money and phones taken away, all for the job. They hardly see those who perpetrate the acts because the streetlights are not functional. But she has been fortunate not to fall a victim.
Six years ago, John lost her husband, a carpenter in an accident. Since then, she has been the one taking care of her children and training them in school, with help from nowhere.
“It is not easy to wake up that early,” she said. “But because of the nature of the job and the fact that I need the money and also want to keep the state clean, I deny myself of sleep to enable me complete my work daily”.
Sadly, despite the stress John bears, she spoke of how she missing inconsistent payment of salaries by the Cross River Urban Development Authorities, under the Governor Ben-Ayade led administration in Cross River State. Sometimes, she went months without receiving her payment of N10,000. And that made feeding difficult. Whenever she became sick from sweeping the road, she could not get the medication she deserved because there was no money.
A road sweeper keeping the streets clean
She is only one out of over 300 women-most of them old and widowed-who risk their lives and health to keep the streets at Calabar South and Calabar Municipality clean but have had to deal with inconsistency in salary payment.
Culture of non-payment of salary
This April, John and other women protested outside the government house in Calaber,  accusing the department in charge of their payment of plans to steal their salaries. The agency handling the payment refused to pay the women since January.
That was not the first time that road sweepers in Calabar were going months without being paid for their work. In October 2021, they blocked the major roads in Calabar as they protested over months of unpaid salaries by the state government. The women who were being paid 7,500 at the time had gone six months without receiving their salaries.
As they approached the governor’s office at the time,  carrying leaves and chanting “we no go gree” they were tear-gassed and brutalised by police officers who wanted to deter them from demanding that their salaries be paid.
The women during their protest this April
The alleged brutalisation drew the ire of different women groups including the International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA), Stand-Up for Women Society (SWS), and Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and organized labour.
Chairperson of Stand Up for Women Society (SWS), Mrs Umo Basi-Edet said it was terrible to see innocent, aged women, some widows being tear-gassed by security operatives for committing no offense.
The organized labour was also described as both conscienceless, inhuman and dehumanizing the treatment that was given to the women who work daily to keep the city clean. It said that the women cannot be made slaves in their state, they restated that the right to protest is guaranteed under the Nigerian law.
In response to the allegations, the Commissioner of Police in the State, Alhassan Aminu, denied that his men used teargas on the street sweepers, describing reports as fake
“Perhaps some videos where women were tear-gassed were uploaded on social media by some mischievous persons so that his command can be given a bad name,” Aminu was quoted as saying.
After the 2021 protest, some of the women were paid four out of the six months while others were paid 3 and 5 respectively. The government also increased the salary to N10,000. The women thought that the situation had changed for the better. But that did not last.
The women during one of their protests over non-payment of salary
Between August and November 2022, they were owed their salaries and only got paid in bits after they expressed their displeasure. For this year, they have been paid from January to April because they protested. But they are yet to receive payments for May and those who spoke to this reporter want the new government to ensure that they are paid. They also want better working conditions.
Seeking alternatives
As the 2022 non-payment of salary persisted, John started working as house help for a family.She recalls how she always returned home late in the evening after leaving as early as 5am.
A road sweeper describing her daily routine. 
“Though I often get tired after sweeping the road, I will always run to the house where I work to meet up with the time because I hardly had transport fair. “They complained because I always went came late”.  “The normal thing would have been for me to return home after sweeping the road but I need the money”.
She closed close by 6pm but she would not get home for fear of being harassed by those she owes money.
Borrowing to stay alive
Margaret Paul started work in March 2022. She covers ten poles which usually takes three hours of her time. But like other women, she suffered from inconsistent salary payment.
Before she started sweeping, she sold fish. But after the death of her husband, a tricycle rider in 2015, things became hard and she stopped the business. Now, she juggles sweeping with working on people’s farms with her children.
Sadly, the money she earned from working on farms hardly sufficed, hence she borrowed from friends and neighbours. Some of her children have finished their primary education. But they cannot continue because there is no money.
From Paul’s house to where she works is about 40 minutes and she must trek the long distance to get to work. She has not failed to come to work. Most times, after work, she gets tired and hungry and with no money, she treks back home.
“Sometimes, I earn N1000 and sometimes, N2000 from the farm and with what money we can borrow, we manage “she said. “That is how I survive amid the non-payment of our salary from the government.
Women buy everything they need to work
What is also worrying about her Job, John said was that the women use their money to buy brooms, parkers and hand gloves they use for their job even when they were not being paid regularly.
She said that each broom costs N200 and normally, she uses two at a time, spending N1000 before each month runs out.
“I go hungry to be able to buy the brooms I use to work to keep the road clean, “We sweep gutters too and sometimes, we see human feces and other disgusting things and we must pack them to get our full salary or have N500 deducted from it “explained John.
Another sweeper doing her work diligently
John said that under the administration of former governor, Donald Duke, road sweepers were being paid N15,000 monthly, there were no issues of non-payment of salary and everyone was happy. Whenever she received her money,  after a long wait, it went into debt settlement, making it difficult for her to save.
Nobody cares if you fall sick, just work
Patience Jacob has been on the job since 2019. She comes out as early as 4:30 daily to be able to finish two locations, covering distance of 18 poles for each. Apart from the two locations, she still does a general cleaning before she goes home, hence she usually finishes work between 9-10 am.
She recalls one instance when she was chased by some bad boys.
“I was coming out that morning when a young man started running after me “she said. “I quickly hid somewhere because it was dark and he did not find me”. “But despite the risks and efforts I put in, the government has refused to pay me”.
She was one of the women who protested six months of unpaid salaries in 2021. After the protest, she was only paid five of the six months’ salary.  Her daughter, who is into hairdressing, has been the one taking care of her, including buying drugs and food. Whenever she returns home from work, she become weak. But she must get ready for work the next day.
She recalls when she became sick because of the stress associated with the job and could not come out to work. When it was time for salaries to be paid, N500 was deducted.
A road sweeper keeps the streets clean
“Nobody cares if you are sick and cannot come for work, “she said. “Any day you will not come. You must eighter get someone to cover for you or have your salary deducted “she said.
Ayade blames sub-contractors over none-payment
Appearing on Arise News Morning Show Programme this May, Ayadesaid that the state government pays the sweepers through sub-contractors, adding that when they are paid and they don’t pay the street sweepers, then it becomes a  challenge.
“I was out of the state when they came, he said, referring to the recent protest. “When I came back, I paid and brought it down to 1 month outstanding which we are going to pay,”. When there is a failure by any of them, we step in”.
Ayadeclaimed that the protests by street sweepers in the state was politically motivated, noting that he met them earning N5000 monthly, 300 of them and increased their number and salary.
“This is judging from what I have done for them and the amount of love I have shown to them by providing overalls, increasing what I pay to the contractors so they can get more money which has never happened, “he said.
John’s children have completed their secondary education but they can go further because there is no money.
“They need to eat and be alive first “she said. “I want to return to the village because the stress is too much for me and there is nothing to show for the work I do. “I am my children are suffering”.
Names of sources have been changed to protect their identity.
 

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