By Themba Mkhize
The scent of rubbing alcohol and sanitizer is everywhere, confirming the season of hyper-sanitation. For me, this is a good time to interrogate the on-the-job realities of those workers responsible for cleansing our public spaces.
Proper sanitation has become a more consequential, more visible force in our daily lives. As the risk of catching COVID-19 has increased, a front-end sanitation and mask-checking process has become a fixed part of the general client experience. This has helped businesses inspire confidence among potential clients that their business environment is a safe one, and that their businesses are operated responsibly.
Security guards, waiters and cashiers have become the frontline of the mask police force and sanitation army. With increased risks and responsibilities, these workers are now adding more value to their organizations. At the same time, janitorial staff governs the back-end of sanitization, and have seen their workloads near double in some instances.
In the same way, waste collection has become more risky. Garbage collectors have to interact with household refuse, in some cases household members, and in other cases a drastic increase in medical waste – all of which put them at great risk of infection.
The roles these employees play has brought real value to many organizations. This ought to be reflected in the way they are treated.
While financial incentives may not be viable for many businesses, where it is possible I encourage profitable businesses to give bonuses to these frontline workers at the end of the year. At the lower end of the compensation pyramid, workers find themselves especially vulnerable to resource shocks. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the Caribbean Policy Research Institute (CAPRI) found that over the past few months, 46% of households with children have lost income, while 44% have suffered food shortages.
These figures are dwarfed when it is considered that 84% of these households had either no access to or partial access to the list of recommended sanitation items, including hand sanitizer, gloves, disinfectant, masks etc. Of the 84% who do not have sufficient quantities of the recommended items, 68% cited that this was due to a lack of affordability. No doubt, these frontline workers are likely to be affected in a significant way by these realities.
Where financial incentives are not feasible, then at the least, these workers must be treated as dignified members of the organization, and be afforded training opportunities to better protect themselves and those they serve. Many organizations have been guilty of undervaluing and mistreating staff, especially at the lower levels.
Similarly, frontline workers are responsible for performing their duties diligently as that is the greatest contribution they can make to individual and collective health. I cannot say that this has been the case at every establishment I have visited, but I am pleased to say that in most cases I leave satisfied with the management of adherence to protocols.
There is still cause for concern, however. On a number of occasions I have observed garbage collectors, janitorial staff and restaurant staff operating without masks, even during close interpersonal interactions. As harmless as these small interactions feel, the potential costs are high. So high, perhaps, that 1.5 million of us may endure the yet unclear long term effects of a COVID-19 infection, while fifteen thousand may die before finding out.
So while we applaud good work, encourage benevolent behaviour, criticize underwhelming performance and propose potential solutions, it is important that we also think of how we can do better, and make it easier for others to do better as well.
Specifically as it relates to garbage collectors, the NSWMA proposed the following:
- Securing your household garbage by properly bagging, tying, and placing in a container (drum, mesh, receptacle or skip) for collection.
- Double bagging garbage containing tissue, gloves, face masks and diapers.
- Placing your storage receptacle at the front of the premises where it can be accessed without hindrance 24 hours per day.
I would go further to say that we should display a kind spirit in our interactions with frontline workers, even if we have to stay more than six feet away. Their work is tedious, and like everyone else, they are facing the pandemic with their bravest face. For those of us who can offer support, let us do so; for others of us, let us contribute what we can through displays of fairness and appreciation.
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