Street cleaners are entitled to our charity

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A video went viral on social media recently showing a person offering a bottle of cold water to a street cleaner who was working in the hot sun. The man was sitting in his car and distributing bottles of water to those passing by. The cleaner was happy to get a bottle of cold water free of charge. However, condition of street cleaners tells us something more like the following: “Thanks a lot, but my needs and my rights are more than this bottle of cold water.”

When I once stopped my car to give a street cleaner a small amount of money with which he could buy a bottle of water or a sandwich or something similar, some people traveling in their cars or walking nearby started staring at me. Some of them looked at me with satisfaction, while others looked angry. One of them scolded me saying: “Damn you. People like you have turned these street cleaners into beggars! These people have left their work of cleaning so as to engage in beggary.”

I told him: “I am not the one who is responsible for turning them into beggars; it is those who brought them from their country under contracts, which are like ‘contracts of submissiveness’. As per these contracts, the cleaners do not have the right to raise objections against anything.

The brokerage offices, agents and representatives of companies promised them good pay, comfortable accommodation, delicious food and a fine working environment before their arrival in the Kingdom. However, when they arrived, they discovered that they had been cheated. Their salaries are meager and are not sufficient to meet the expenses of even half of a month. As for their accommodation, it is so crowded that large numbers of workers are huddled in each room and needless to say their working environment is appalling.

What can one expect from a worker who feels angry and frustrated because of this injustice? Is it surprising that he looks for other means of earning a living, such as washing cars and other petty jobs, as well as seeking the mercy of benevolent and compassionate people?

I think that street cleaners should be provided with alms. Those who know their circumstances and what they have been subjected to in terms of deception, fraud and exploitation might not hesitate to lend them a helping hand and assist them. They should be given their rights in full and the most important of these rights is a salary that is commensurate with the type of work they are doing. Taking into account the difficult conditions in which they work, they have to be given a salary that will prevent them from begging and doing menial jobs.

They have been subjected to injustice and the salary that they earn would not exceed the price of a dinner for two people in a posh restaurant in Jeddah or Riyadh.

I have written about this issue before, drawing attention to a hadith in which the Prophet (peace be upon him) said that God would support the Muslim Ummah because of the prayers, supplications and sincerity of its weaker sections.

I have also highlighted an interview with the prominent business leader Sheikh Saleh Kamel. In the interview, the well-known media figure Turki Al-Dakheel asked Sheikh Kamel whether the salary given to cleaners was adequate. Sheikh Kamel replied in the negative and added that their low salary could turn street cleaners into criminals.

In answer to a question about the responsibility for the appalling situation, Sheikh Kamel said: “The responsibility lies in the contractual bidding system as well as with companies and businessmen, and I am one of them.” During the interview he promised to improve the cleaners’ living conditions.

There is no doubt that companies, contractors and traders, as pointed out by Sheikh Saleh Kamel, are responsible for what is inflicted on the cleaners in terms of injustice and unfairness and that this eventually leads to the deterioration of the services that they provide. It is not fair to hold the workers responsible for this deterioration since the responsibility lies with the companies that participate in tenders. They sign contracts worth hundreds of millions of riyals for cleaning operations but they pay only a very small amount of it to these workers in terms of their salaries and other allowances.

The salaries that street cleaners receive are not commensurate with the amount of work they do and the difficulty in carrying out that work. The mayoralties and municipalities that handle the tender procedures for implementing these contracts also bear a part of the responsibility for this situation. These agencies limit their responsibilities to inviting bids and signing contracts and they do not explain the work required and the number of workers who will be needed to implement it.

No worker should have the feeling that he is oppressed and frustrated and has been treated in a manner similar to the conditions that exist in a camp of forced labor.

— Dr. Ali Al-Ghamdi is a former Saudi diplomat who specializes in Southeast Asian affairs. He can be reached at algham@hotmail.com


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