Cleaners have been employed in Faridpur’s cities since sanitation and waste removal became a priority for the Government of Bangladesh. But many people living in the country don’t consider the wellbeing of the people whose job it is to clean up our waste.
Do we even once think about the struggling aspects of the lives of cleaners? What consequences and vulnerabilities do they face during their work time and workplace or have they ever been able to explain their rights and needs to others?
These aren’t easy questions to answer, but we can get an insight through the story of cleaner Alo Rani Das. Alo, is 42 and lives in Bandhobpolli, Faridpur. She’s been a cleaner for nearly twenty years. She works in a government bank where her duties include sweeping, dusting and cleaning toilets. She belongs to a Harijan ethnic group, a community traditionally involved in sweeping, collecting garbage and cleaning drains, manholes, latrines and sewerage pipes with bare hands.
The Harjan community have been employed in these services since the time of their forefathers. Most of them work manually without any machines or protection. This is extremely laborious and health hazard. The manual jobs make them isolated from mainstream so they’re often not accepted socially. To many, they are the “untouchables” of society. But now few courageous people like Alo have taken to the initiative to change their circumstances.
Alo has joined with 31 other female cleaners to form a cooperative aimed at improving their working conditions and position in society. In this cooperative, most of them are involved in street sweeping work under Municipality’s supervision, while some of them like Alo, are engaged in cleaning and sweeping related works in different private organizations and households.
For the past year, the women have been regularly putting aside a small amount of money to increase their savings.
In January 2019, to establish the legal basis of their cooperative, the group applied for registration from the Department of Cooperatives under the Ministry of Local Government, Rural Development and Co-operatives. This registration and given licenses will allow them to operate as private enterprises to run waste management services with public and private organisations.
As president of the cooperative, Alo always seeking opportunities to further expand the group’s scope of work. Recently, she and the general secretary of the group, Boshaki Jomadar, participated in an event organised by the Corporate Responsibility Network (CRN). This is a network made up of the big conglomerates of Bangladesh who are trying to establish a knowledge hub to provide CSR services to the varied range of stakeholders.
At the event “Showcasing Sustainable & Innovative Project Ideas”, on behalf of the cooperative, Alo presented an idea for a more modern, mechanised sweeping system. The idea came from the fact that she currently has only basic cleaning equipment. The aim of the new system is to make the job of cleaner more modern and professional. By doing this, Alo hopes to gradually strengthen the socioeconomic status of cleaners.
In her presentation at the event, Alo talked about her current working conditions. She highlighted the work environment, health risks and professional safety and security in the workplace. She also talked about the relationship between cleaners and the Municipality and the working organizations, daily wages and cooperation they need.
Alo estimated a budget of around five and a half lac to buy, test and demonstrate the new machines. This investment will also ensure operational sustainability and pay for health and safety equipment for the cleaners. The project will also promote the benefits of a modern sweeping service to the community, markets and organisations. It’s hoped this will lead to a partnership agreement with the Municipality and institutions for waste-related business.
Through this project, the cooperative are hoping to provide a better service to about a thousand people in one year, while enjoying an improved working environment.
This project marks a brave step by an informal waste worker. Alo is helping to break the stereotypes attached to waste workers and make their voices heard so they have more rights and can lead more dignified lives.
Despite her social position, Alo’s move has not only praised by the big multinationals but also make them realize and understand their role in waste management strategies along with the city government.
The idea of modernizing the sweeping business of “Modhumoti Nari Cleaner Somobay Somiti” has obtained 3rd placed in the 22 ideas submitted to the CRN. This confident step of Alo has undoubtedly has started a new era for those who have been relentlessly serving others while enduring hardship in their own lives.
We supported Alo to form the cooperative through our EU-funded Dignifying Lives project. Our work has been focused on empowering informal waste and sanitation workers both socially and economically and supporting them to deliver equitable and integrated services.