WHILE driving, we shake our heads in disgust at the sight of tin cans, tissue papers, tit-bit wrappers and rubbish being dumped on the road through the window of the car in front.
Then, in annoyance, we may yell: “Hey, come on! Who do you expect to collect those rubbish scraps for you? Do you people think there are garbage-busting fairies around to clean up our towns or cities?”
Fortunately, we do seem to have “anti-litter fairies,” going about their work quietly in our midst. They do not have wings because they are humans — like us. And they work for the town or city councils.
Many of these anti-litter fairies – or street sweepers — are women employed by the councils to keep public places clean. Carrying brooms, dustpans and buckets, they walk about their designated areas, clearing indiscriminately discarded refuse.
Street sweepers are important as they help to keep our towns or cities clean and tidy but the work they do is often taken for granted.
Take the case of two women who work under the hot noon, clad in blue-black uniforms and green vests with floppy hats for shade. When thesundaypost met up with them, they were busy clearing rubbish from a street and a nearby drain.
One of them spotted an empty bottle which was overlooked by her workmate cleaning the drain. She called out to her, pointing to the bottle, and was about to say something when suddenly someone asked: “Don’t you feel hot, aunty?”
The woman who was sweeping at the time, stopped, stretched her back and smiled: “Oh, this is nothing. We are used to it. We are strong.”
She gave her name as Rajamah Lamat, a 53-year-old grandmother of six grandchildren.
The other woman introduced herself as Mary Matan, 56, and revealed with a hearty laugh she is also a grandmother of six grandchildren.
Rajamah and Mary have been working as road sweepers for Kuching City South Council (MBKS) for over two decades — 23 and 26 years respectively to be exact.
Mayor Datuk James Chan was kind enough to allow me some of their working time so that I could chat further with them.
Both report for work at 7am every day with their dustpans, brooms and buckets. They work even do overtime on weekends and public holidays from the extra income. Rain or shine, they report for work. On rainy days, they are provided with raincoats.
Before Mary, a mother of five, took up the job 26 years ago, she had to choose between sweeping the streets for a living or living in deprivation. She chose the former – not that she had much say in the matter. At that time, she did not have the luxury to worry if people would look down on her for doing what some people think is a “dirty and lowly paid job.”
Honest day’s work
She is now thankful her perseverance and steadfastness in facing the harsh realities of life have helped her overcome her inferiority complex. She is no longer worried about how people view her. After all, she pointed out, a street sweeper is only trying to make a living by doing an honest day’s work and there is nothing shameful or illegal with that.
Her confidence has been further boosted by supportive her family and children who are thankful she has a stable job — at least enough to put food on the table.
“At one time, I always worried that my children might be teased or humiliated in school just because their mother was a street sweeper but thankfully that never happened,” Mary said, adding that she never came across anyone making fun of her because of her job.
“Honestly, no one has ever been rude to me or said bad things about me and my job.”
Mary said she and her husband were proud they managed to raise their children properly and give them at least basic education. Their children are now all working adults, married, and have their own lives.
It is her children’s happiness that has given Mary the most satisfaction but she never expects anything in return.
Mary’s husband also works for MBKS but and is attached to the market section.
Asked how she got the job, she said after hearing there were vacancies, she tried her luck, was called for an interview and eventually offered the job.
Mary had other jobs before, including as a factory worker and grass cutter. She said such jobs often gave her body-aches.
“But I’m happy with what I am doing now – that’s why I have stayed on for more than 20 years,” she added. Her start-up pay was RM11 a day.
As MBKS daily paid sweepers were being phased out, Datuk James Chan fought for them and at the end of 2008, the government decided to convert daily paid staff of local authorities statewide to monthly paid staff.
Some job security
Rajamah who took up the job as a road sweeper 23 years ago, lives at Foochow Road and to get to and from her workplace, she pays a friend RM50 a month for transport.
Previously, she worked as a domestic helper but felt the job was not stable and had no prospect. So when she was told there was a vacancy for street sweeper at MBKS, she applied for it.
“In fact, I didn’t care about the job I would be doing. The important thing was it must provide some security because at that time, I was a single mother with two young children,” Rajamah said.
Although she sometimes feels people are looking down on what she does for a living, she tries not be too bothered about it, saying she is proud of her job because it is workers like her who keep the city clean.
She is happy she and her co-workers are able to contribute to society through their work, saying she often comes across members of the public who show them a lot of respect.
“We are like family. I love my job. It’s honest, decent and important too. Without us, the streets won’t be so neat and tidy.”
One of her duties is to trim the grass, especially around parking areas. She often works overtime for the extra income.
Rajamah said when her daughter was still young, she used to bring her to her workplace – just to let the child see what her mother was doing to support the family.
Her daughter is now grown up and working as a school clerk. Her second child, a son, is working offshore.
Rajamah said as a single mother, she felt proud she had been able to bring up her children properly. Both are married and have children of their own.
Asked if they had some experiences they would like to share, Rajamah who mostly covers the areas around Ang Cheng Ho Road in Padungan, was the first to reply: “For me, the biggest challenge was during a bad flood some 10 years ago. Water even swept into the basement of a hotel. After the flood subsided, there was big mess to clear. Rubbish (from toppled dustbins) was scattered all around. We had a hard time clearing the junk.”
Then with a giggle, partially covered with her hand, she said there were times she got a bit lucky for finding “good things” on the roads or other areas of her work.
The most common items she picked up were coins but sometimes, she stumbled upon RM1 or RM5 notes. Her biggest find so far is a RM10 note. At one time, she also found a hand-phone and a watch.
“But I don’t have such luck anymore. Maybe because of the bad economy, people are more careful,” she laughed.
So far, Rajamah cannot afford to take leave. If she had a chance in future, she would like to visit Sabah because she was told the Land Below the Wind is a beautiful place and she is curious to see it.
She hardly finds time for recreation either.
“I have never even been to Damai or Santubong — only once to Pasir Pandak.”
Mary concurred the tougher times were usually after a flash flood otherwise the elements were not a concern as they are used to them by now although she admitted it was quite difficult to do any sweeping in the rain because the rubbish either stuck to the ground or float away in the storm water.
More rubbish is scattered about after a downpour or strong wind. It could get washed way or blown from place to place. Waste materials come from toppled garbage bins or garbage piles and may get swept into and block drains.
Mary said rubbish could also come from overflowing dustbins which got cleared only twice a week, adding that the volume of trash was increasing from year to year.
Among the commonly discarded items are plastic mineral water bottles, tin cans, cigarette boxes and butts, paper boxes, lunch boxes and diapers and nappies.
Mary pointed out that although the bulk of trash had become bigger, she was happy to note more people were becoming increasingly aware of cleanliness and the importance of recycling apart from being more environmental-friendly as well.
This, she believed, was due to the many awareness campaigns carried out by the authorities and various green groups.
Asked if she ever got lucky like Rajamah, she chuckled: “Oh yes — I also found coins and RM1, RM2 and RM5 notes usually at parking lots. They were usually dropped when people took the car keys out of their pockets.”
On holidays, Mary said she made a short trip with friends to Langkawi seven years ago but did not have time to go to the beach, adding that as surprising as it might sound, she had never been to a beach all her life.
Her trip to Langkawi was the only time she travelled out of Sarawak.
“It’s a great to see another place and get to know its culture,” she said.
Mary doubted she would get another chance to travel because life for people like her seems so preoccupied with making a living — day in day out.
“So, how could I have the money and time for luxury and leisure,” she asked.