SPECIAL REPORT: The hard lives of Lagos’ street sweepers

Kehinde Raji sweeping the street at Suru, Lagos
Kehinde Raji sweeping the street at Suru, Lagos

The pain on Kehinde Raji’s leg sweeps across her gaunt face with every effort to move her broom across the dusty road at Badia, where she works. A street sweeper employed by the Lagos Waste Management Authority (LAWMA), Mrs Raji kept pushing herself, knowing fully well that her earnings depended heavily on completing her task.

“I’m fine, work is going fine too,” Mrs Raji, 50, tells this reporter. But the grimace on her face tells a different story.

She is among the hundreds of sweepers – usually clad in orange or lemon jumpsuits – across Lagos roads who work with little or no health insurance.

Several street sweepers interviewed by PREMIUM TIMES said they do not have health insurance for their jobs. Or, if it exists, they are unaware of it.

Mrs Raji said she was at work when she had an accident and injured her leg. She wanted to cross the highway to sweep the other side of the road when she tripped and fell.

“It was serious, I couldn’t stand up on my own, thank God no vehicle was coming,” she said.

”I was still working at Badiya when I fell while trying to cross the road.”

A paltry salary

There are 7,500 street sweepers employed by 120 service providers across the state, according to the Lagos Waste Management Authority (LAWMA)

Several orange jumpsuit-clad highway sweepers – those working under LAWMA – interviewed by PREMIUM TIMES said they don’t have health insurance. They earn a monthly salary of ₦18,500.

“Did you say health care?” Arike Alafia, a sweeper, asked, surprised at the mere suggestion of that.

“Even the salary, they don’t pay us on time.”

The sweeper, however, was thankful to the previous administration (of former Governor Akinwunmi Ambode) for increasing their salary from the initial ₦12,000.

For Mrs Raji, the fracture she suffered on her right leg deteriorated because she could not afford to go to an orthopaedic hospital. Instead, she turned to a relative who runs a traditional bone healing centre for healing.

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Despite the treatment, she said she suffers muscle spasms which results in sleepless nights and reduced efficiency at work.

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“Hospital? Where will I see the money to go to the hospital?” She asked when asked why she didn’t go to a hospital. “A man treated the leg for me, he collected ₦7,000 for the treatment.”

If the LAWMA street sweepers are earning below the national minimum wage (₦33,000), their counterparts, the lemon jumpsuit-clad sweepers, popularly called highway managers, earn less, ₦14,500.

Highway Managers Limited is a private corporation in charge of the lemon jumpsuit-clad street sweepers. It is a service provider under the umbrella of LAWMA, a company official told PREMIUM TIMES.

Odun Adelaja, a highway manager, said the meagre pay means they are always in debt before the end of the month.

“I took up the job just to be leaving the house and avoid unnecessary running of errands for neighbours who go to work,” said Ms Adelaja, who is in her early 30’s.

“They don’t even pay the ₦14,500 on time, we don’t get paid until the 15th of every month. How do they expect us to survive?”

It is unclear why the two groups of street sweepers receive different salaries while doing the same job.

An official of Highway Managers Limited said the company provides “necessary health care” for her sweepers.

“We have three different hospitals our workers can get treatment without any charge,” said the official who declined to state her name.

Ms Adelaja corroborated the official’s claim, saying “they provided hospitals for us, we can go there whenever we are sick, they give us drugs and administer other treatments.”

Last year, after a sweeper, Folasade Ogunniyi, was killed by a hit-and-run driver on the Third Mainland Bridge, Highway Managers Limited promised to compensate her family with ₦45,000 – her three months salary.

The orange jumpsuit-clad street sweepers, who are directly under LAWMA, do not enjoy any health care coverage, several of the sweepers told PREMIUM TIMES.

Commuting conundrum

According to the sweepers, they are usually assigned tasks at roads and highways near their residences. But even though they spend ‘little’ to get to their workplaces, it leaves a huge dent in their pockets.

Kehinde Raji, a sweeper, said God blessed her with children.

“I have 8 of them,” said Mrs Raji, 50, a smile appearing on her face.

“Most of them are married but three children are staying with me.”

A widow, Mrs Raji said she lost her husband 15 years ago and has single-handedly raised their kids.

Messrs Raji and Alafia live at Ijora Badia from where they commute to their place of work at Suru-Alaba, along the Badagry expressway, a distance of nearly six kilometres.

“We spend ₦70 when coming and another ₦70 when going home. When we don’t have money sometimes, we lap (one person sitting on the lap of the other) each other,” the women said.

“I was able to come to work this morning was because I fought with my son to give me at least ₦200.

“Sometimes, we meet friendly conductors that carry us for ₦50, instead of the normal fare of ₦70,” Mrs Alafia said.

“Other times when they are not, we trek some distance to reduce the cost of transportation.”

For weeks, PREMIUM TIMES made repeated attempts to speak with LAWMA without success. When the reporter visited their headquarters at Ijora, she was asked to submit an official request. Weeks later, she was given the phone number of the agency’s assistant director, public affairs, Shade Kadiri. Ms Kadiri did not respond to several phone calls and text messages.

Bayo Matthew, an official of Highway Managers, said part of the issues encountered while engaging the street sweepers is they spend very little time in their employment.

“Some of them after working for a month, two or three, they would say they are leaving. In the real sense, they come back after one or two years,” he said.

“People take up the job for a different reason, some take the job to settle debts, others to raise capital for their businesses.”

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