Garbage Collectors and the Struggle for Workers’ Rights in Yemen

“I will do everything I can to grow a field in the desert.”- Haidar Swaid, Member of the Garbage Collectors Syndicate

In both the foreign and local press, conventional frameworks for understanding the uprising in Yemen locate its popular impetus within two main social groupings: the disaffected middle-class urban youth, who first occupied the streets and squares and called for an end to both corruption and the ruling regime; and tribesmen and political party members, who soon joined them in solidarity and common cause. They also note the ongoing Houthi and Southern movements whose narratives of subjugation were unevenly, and now unsuccessfully, incorporated into the broader national frameworks of the revolution. However, these narratives have failed to account for the important role that strikes, demonstrations, and other actions of civil disobedience by organized workers played in the build-up to the uprising and in the continued struggle for the social, political, and economic transformation of Yemen.

In 2008, numerous strikes by port workers, teachers, laborers, and professors took place in cities throughout Yemen. Oil workers were among the most active in the years preceding the 2011 uprising. Strikers were able to shutdown oilfields, refineries, and pipelines in March 2009, August 2009, April 2010, and October 2010. The significant cost of work stoppages succeeded in extracting periodic concessions from the Yemeni regime. These short-lived victories, coupled with the regime’s violent response to the strikes—which included the use of live ammunition against protesting workers and the mass incarceration of union members—had a chilling effect on all but the most organized of labor activism. Yet, the industrial action of these and other workers demonstrated that collective struggle could enact positive change. This awareness of political opportunity culminated in the nationwide general strike of May 2010, which forced the regime to the negotiating table and procured conditional, if fleeting, improvements for public sector workers.

The uprising rejuvenated labor activism in early 2011 and strikes spread to paralyze state, private, and nonprofit institutions such as Yemenia Airways, Saada Radio, Al-Thawrah Hospital in Taiz, the Yemeni Air Force, the Yemen Bank of Reconstruction and Development, the Central Organization of Control and Audit, and the Red Crescent Society in Sana’a. Generally, strikers have demanded higher wages, better working conditions, general reforms, and the removal of the corrupt heads of these institutions.

These demonstrations and strikes continue to sweep Yemeni cities. In May 2012 alone, work stoppages were held in Sana’a, Taiz, Hodeida, Saada, and Aden, where a strike by the seaport workers of DP World has paralyzed the port. DP World, a Dubai-based state-owned company that was awarded the contract to run the seaport in 2008, is being accused of deliberate mismanagement in order to drive ocean-bound commerce to the Emirate. In Sana’a, employees at the Ministry of Youth and Sports have been protesting daily against corruption in the ministry and demanding the removal of the minister.

A Story of Struggle and Success

The most visible and widespread labor struggle during the uprising has been that of the garbage collectors, who managed to organize and sustain an on-and-off long nationwide strike, which lasted up to three months in certain cities. 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. Significantly, the workers framed their grievances in terms of both economic exploitation and social inequality. 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). As their struggle was integrated into broader national narratives of suffering, the gross inequities of their situation became more commonly recognized and sympathized with, in spite of continued and considerable discrimination.

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.

Garbage collectors have an exceptional employment status. They report to state officials within the Office of Sanitation and Labor, but they have neither employment contracts nor monthly salaries. Instead, they work through daily contracts, which allows the state to avoid paying them employee benefits. Haidar Swaid, a member of the garbage collectors union, listed the conditions of those contracts to include “no vacation days, no holidays, no social or medical insurance, and the years of work do not count toward promotion.” Additionally, they receive no pay raises or end of year bonuses. “A man who has worked eighteen years is like the man who started work yesterday,” he decried. The precarious nature of the work is enhanced for women, who are not entitled to maternity leave and so often find themselves forced to work while pregnant and caring for infants. Since the state also fails to respect labor laws, those same infants are likely to find themselves employed as street cleaners before they reach their teenage years. Sexual harassment and rape of female street cleaners is also a common occurrence, as the public visibility and low social prestige of the work adds to their vulnerability.

This workplace insecurity is compounded by the social discrimination that the marginalized face. Housing is particularly difficult to secure, with few willing to rent to them. As a result, the majority of garbage collectors and street cleaners find themselves living in impoverished slum areas that lack basic services, including sewage, water, and electricity. Former President Saleh had promised garbage collectors, as with other public sector employees, land for housing, but that promise has yet to be fulfilled. “Garbage collectors are not less important than the soldiers who give their lives. Garbage collectors give their souls. They have not been greedy with their country, why has their country been greedy with them?” asked Mohammed Al-Githry, head of the Yemeni Confederation of Labor Unions.

Equal Rights for All Workers

Since March 2012, the labor strikes have aimed to pressure the new transitional government to grant garbage workers fulltime employment contracts with benefits and better work conditions. In response, Prime Minister Mohammed Basindawa passed a decree on April 12, 2012 that granted fulltime employment rights, health benefits, and vacation days to garbage collectors. Members of the marginalized community attribute this success to labor union organizing. A member of the union, in turn, attributes this success to “garbage” itself. “A strike that makes garbage fill the country is the best weapon we have” said Haidar Swaid.

The decree is a positive step toward achieving employment equality and social justice. It is also an encouraging move in the ongoing fight against corruption, since managers will now have a harder time issuing fake temporary contracts that they can cash in themselves. However, legal reform alone cannot effect real change. As with many laws in Yemen, implementation and accountability are often lacking. The previous regime had already passed Laws 292 and 517 in April 2008, both of which decreed fulltime employment and benefits for garbage collectors. Unfortunately, these laws were never implemented.

Yet, Basindawa’s latest decree just might prove to be the exception to the rule. There are some promising signs, such as the ministerial committee that has been created to initiate and oversee the implementation process. The committee is now conducting surveys and collecting information on garbage collectors and uploading information into a central database in preparation for the implementation phase. Many are complaining about the unnecessary length of this process. “We ask them to expedite the process of implementation,” said Mohammed Al-Marzooqi, head of the garbage collectors syndicate. According to a government official, the delay is due to the time it takes to gather and verify information on the twenty thousand workers nationwide and then to provide these workers with identification cards.

State-Worker Relations

While the process is taking longer than expected, state officials have recognized the need to show appreciation to their diligent workers. For the first time in Sana’a’s history, state officials publically acknowledged the garbage collectors in an official ceremony. On Saturday, 12 May 2012, the Sana’a local council, the Office of Sanitation and Labor, and the labor union organized the first celebration honoring thirty “cleaning soldiers.” The celebration included reciting poems and playing music. Some workers received honorary certificates for the “best employees of the year,” while others were given bonuses for Labor Day.

In a symbolic show of appreciation and encouragement in mid-April 2012, state officials, including the Prime Minister and the Minister of Human Rights, went to the streets with brooms to begin a citizen cleaning campaign. “This was a good gesture, I had never seen any state official hold a broom on television before,” said Mohammed Ali, a thirty-two-year old garbage collector. “The signs of our successful strike have started to show,” he added.

Another assuring sign is the inclusion of representatives from the marginalized community—who make up the majority of garbage collectors—in the National Dialogue, set up under the post-uprising transition plan to accommodate voices from different segments of the population. The marginalized are prepared to participate in the process and have called on their fellow citizens to make the fight against social discrimination a prominent issue on the agenda of the transitional government by encouraging the Yemeni legislature to adopt laws criminalizing discrimination and implementing equal rights for workers.

The struggle continues

Garbage collectors have finally been able to get through to Yemeni citizens and move public opinion toward their struggle. Their plight has also attracted the attention of the media, as state and nonprofit institutions have started to sponsor numerous projects to help the marginalized community. Yet skepticism still looms in the minds of many.

“We heard a lot of talk by government and NGOs about new housing projects and humanitarian aid for the marginalized community. But this is all just talk, and exploitation of our situation. We have not seen the implementation,” said union member Yahya Al-Qahm.

Labor activists have historically played an important role in the struggle for a more just Yemeni society, often mobilizing despite the guarantee of violent repression. While campaigns for worker rights, specifically of garbage collectors, have now become a popular media topic, they often lack substantive popular and institutional support. It is important that community and union leaders, citizen advocates, and rights groups not be seduced by the media hype. Rather, they must follow through on the implementation of the numerous promises made by the government, continue to mobilize for equal rights for all workers, and demand the criminalization of discrimination and racism. Most importantly, as the country moves forward through this transformative period, Yemenis must seize the opportunity to establish new political alliances and coalitions and consolidate the hard-won rights and freedoms to which the 2011 uprising gave birth.

*First published in JADALIYYA

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