Iyabode Animashaun was for six years an ‘outside road cleaner’. Here she describes working conditions as a road sweeper in the London Borough of Merton.
I was employed by the London Borough of Merton as a solo or lone road sweeper to sweep the streets clean. We had to get to our barrow point – where our barrows had been parked – at 6am. Most of the push carts or barrows are left out all night in all weathers. In the winter the first thing you have to do is brush the snow off the barrows. These barrow points are often dangerous – unsafe and a health risk. They could be at the back of shops, in car parks. One was at the back of Merton Library.
In Merton council’s car park at the civic centre three solo road sweepers start work from inside a rubbish chute, inside in a block of flats. On opening the doors in the mornings you can hear mice or rats running away. But you can’t see them, as there is no lighting inside the chute. You only know if they are any rodents inside your barrow when you have a look under the streetlights. Merton council’s waste department managers have approved all these places as fit for their employees to start and finish work from.
There has never been a risk assessment done to look into the suitability or health risks to their workers. There are no lights, toilets, seats or washing facilities in these places. There is no access to drinking water. Some starting points don’t even provide any shelter. There’s nowhere to leave your bag, your coat, your umbrella or anything else. You have to take all your personal belongings, including your food and drink, with you in your barrow – the same barrow used for the rubbish. You have to wear your uniform to and from work as there is nowhere to leave it overnight.
At the end of a shift we take the barrow back to where we started work from that morning. Because there are no facilities at that point the sweepers have nowhere to wash or change out of their working clothes This means they are putting themselves and their families’ health at risk. Sweepers are the only council workers who are given no such facilities at work.
Solo road sweepers are not allowed a tea break. They are allowed to buy a warm drink but have been told they are not allowed to drink it in a café. They have to drink it standing next to their barrows. If they are caught in a café they can be disciplined and their overtime stopped. One time I was sitting in a cafe with six other road sweepers because it was snowing. A manager came in and told us to go back to work. When I said that it was snowing he told us to go and litter pick. I refused and told the men to stay where they where. (In the six years I worked there I was disciplined many times but maybe that’s for another article.) Nothing is put in place for bad weather
Sweepers who work in residential areas are not allowed to move out of their work areas even if there are no toilets on their beat. If a sweeper is found outside their work area to go and use a toilet their overtime is stopped. Lunch is from 10am -11am. You are not allowed to leave for lunch until 10 o’clock but some sweepers who work in residential areas have a 15-minute walk to a café, just half an hour to eat their lunch, then back on their beat by 11 o’clock. Getting back to work late from lunch can mean a disciplinary. Again your overtime can be stopped.
So, we road sweepers do not get paid for our lunch hour yet the council steals half an hour every day. Patch – or area – officers have been known to hide in a sweeper’s work area trying to catch them coming back late from lunch. They have been known to leave rubbish on the streets to try and catch a road sweeper out. Patch officers tell sweepers off for talking to residents. Again, overtime can be stopped.
When I first started work, I asked about access to toilet facilities. I was told to ‘go between the cars’. I pointed out that, as a woman, that wasn’t so easy. Where are the toilet facilities? Answers from managers were, “there are shops on your rounds, where you can ask, and get possible use of their toilet facilities. But don’t be seen coming out of a betting shop or a public house, as that’s a possible disciplinary offence.” On one occasion a sweeper was told “get yourself a bucket so you can go wherever.” Of course the bucket has to be carried on the barrow.
This also raises the question of the paucity of public conveniences that we, the public, all need, including all council employees working out on the streets. We are treated less favorably then other council workers. Merton council has more toilet facilities for the dogs of Merton than they have for their road sweepers. They take away our dignity by expecting us to share the trees with dogs.