Time to remember Yemen’s forgotten workers

“Coming generations will learn equality from poverty, and love from woes” – Gibran Khalil Gibran

For months, piles of red, blue, green, and yellow plastic trash bags spilled into the streets throughout Yemen, filling the cities with the unbearable stench of filth and decay. This was due to a nationwide strike by sanitation workers demanding improved work conditions.

This protest was not the first of its kind. Garbage collectors have gone on strike five times since 1993 to demand higher wages. While they managed to secure wage increases from $0.93 to $3.80 per day, they have also incurred the heavy cost of imprisonment of labor union members for weeks and sometimes months. This increase in wages technically puts them above the poverty line, but they continue to work under extremely insecure and harsh conditions with the lowest wages for public sector employees.

The workers framed their grievances in terms of both economic exploitation and social inequality. As their struggle was integrated into broader national narratives of suffering, the inequities of their situation became more commonly recognized and sympathized with, in spite of continued and considerable discrimination.

The majority of sanitation workers belong to an ostracized social group which self- identifies as al-muhammashin (the marginalized), but is more commonly and derogatorily known as al-akhdam (the servants).

In each neighborhood, residents complained about street cleaners and their strike.  Ahmed, a neighborhood local authority hence decided to solve the problem, he was determined to go visit the street cleaners and demand that they go back to their jobs.  Most street cleaners, if not all, are part of a marginalized community commonly referred to with the derogatory term “al-Akhdam” the servants.

As Ahmed entered the home of one of the workers, he was struck by the overcrowded space, and lack of basic infrastructure such as sewage system, water, and electricity.  While this was only five minutes away from his home, it was miles away in terms of difference.  As they began explaining their harsh work conditions, under-paid salaries, and exclusion from basic rights such as education and health care, Ahmed’s demanding tone softened.  After one hour, he expressed his solidarity with them, and encouraged them to continue their strike.

Garbage collectors work under very harsh conditions. They are not officially employed by the government, and are only contracted to work per day receiving $3.80 to $4 per day and work 360 days a year, with “no vacation days, no holidays, no social or medical insurance, and the years of work do not count towards promotion” said Haidar Swaid, head of Cleaners Friendship Society. “A man who worked 18 years is like the man who started work yesterday” he added.

While they have a very tough job and work in unsanitary areas, they are denied medical insurance, and do not have the proper clothing for protection.  No gloves are even offered for them while they are doing their job.

The government also does not respect the employment laws and hence there are many children working as street cleaners.  In addition, pregnant and breast feeding women suffer from very harsh work conditions with no compensation.  Too often, women street cleaners are also harassed and raped.

Given their fear of being fired as there is no contract to protect them, their poverty, and the fact that they are denied legal defense, they often do not report or sue their perpetrators.  The government  does not address the issue of rape and sexual harassment against marginalized women in a serious manner, nor the general discrimination and racism against the marginalized community, and street cleaners.

After months of the on and off strikes, the prime minister passed law number 46 which decreed full employment rights and benefits for street cleaners.  This is a good announcement as it will serve to not only give workers their rights (if implemented) but also reduce corruption.  The “daily contractors” system helped maintain corruption as many managers often hire “fake and non existing” street cleaners in order to embezzle the money.

Street cleaners have given the government three month period to implement the law or else they will return to their strike.  This is because the previous government had already passed two laws in April 2008, law number 292 and 517 which decreed full employment of street cleaners with complete benefits. Unfortunately, this law was never implemented.  It is therefore vital that we push for the implementation of this law, and pressure the government to make this a national priority that should be discussed in the national dialogue.

The bitter truth that many try to avoid is that this discrimination is not only institutionalized practice, but also due to cultural practices.  The marginalized community often face brutal verbal abuse and discrimination from their fellow citizens.  Common sayings such as “if a dog eats from your plate clean it, if a khadim eats from your plate, break it”, or “he who befriends a khadim will regret it”

are examples of the prevent and widespread discrimination.  It is therefore vital that the state has the political will to integrate the marginalized community in mainstream society, criminalize discrimination and racism, and raise awareness on this topic.

In honor of labor day, let us take a moment to remember the street cleaners. While many of us are on holiday today, these hidden heroes are working even on the day that is assigned to honor them.

Thank them, be grateful for their hard work, and give them the recognition they deserve.  Most importantly, stand in solidarity with their demands for equality and justice. Next time street cleaners are demonstrating for their rights, everyone should join them in order to make it a national issue.

After all, isn’t that what the revolution was about?
Equality, justice and and freedom for all.

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