INVESTIGATION: THE LIFE AND PLIGHT OF ABH CLEANERS (PART 1)
Three cleaners met on the ground floor of D block some weeks ago, with each bragging about the level of hardship they experienced the previous day. Subsequent speakers seemed to be going through something worse than the preceding speaker was. It was suffering Olympics, and even though I had complained of being broke, I never considered myself that broken.
The gold winner of this suffering Olympics had to be the woman who ate with just palm oil the day before. I, for one, don’t want to know what she ate, but I just told myself it should be yam and nothing else. Even at that, no one should have to resort to palm oil as a dip out of compulsion.
Some days later, this woman came to my room to pick my roommate’s clothes for laundry. Over the last couple of days, I had gotten into a number of conversations about how much ABH cleaners are paid and wondered if it was regular. So, my roommate and I decided we would ask.
She did not hesitate to say 8,000 naira. We could not hide the shock, but we maintained some composure as the follow-up question was equally as important.
“Is the pay regular?”.
I knew the most likely answer to this because I remembered it came up on the floor of the Hall Assembly during the last administration. At that time, the cleaners were owed up to eight months’ salaries.
“The last time we were paid was in May”. She barely allowed us to finish the question. It was like she had been waiting for someone, anyone, to ask her.
My roommate was losing it at this point and might have let it slip that it was unbelievable or not possible. Not like he doubted the woman’s truth, but that this truth should not be anyone’s reality.
Mrs Adeoba (not her real name) called another cleaner to verify what she told us. We also needed confirmation. Mrs Adeoba turned her face as she asked the arriving cleaner how much they earned.
“Eight thousand ni oo. Eight thousand”. She echoed a couple of times. I did not know what effect she hoped it would have, but I was torn between pity, disgust, and anger.
“When last were we paid?”
Mrs Adeoba asked again with her face still turned. The cleaner counted down from May. “We are into the sixth month,” she said. I counted again by myself to be sure we did not add more months. She was right.
A third cleaner was passing. The two cleaners beckoned on her like it was planned. She joined in the conversation. Her responses tallied with what we had gotten so far.
Now, it all made sense why they would appreciate every naira, clothes, or foodstuff they got from Brownites. It made sense why a cleaner was pissed that I wanted to throw the garri I left in my room before lock-down away. The cleaner eventually carried it with the rat poop and was really grateful.
The rest of the conversation was buried in lamentations. However, one thing soon stood out, ABH cleaners are so ridiculously paid that they spend over 1.5 times more than their salary on transportation. When we asked where they lived, they mentioned communities we had never heard of, but you could tell they are quite far by the names.
“How much do you spend on transportation a day?”
Two of the cleaners said they spent 500 naira per day.
“And you come to work six times a week?”
“It is only Sundays we don’t come. That is four times in a month.”
So, not only do these cleaners have to leave their houses very early, they spend about 13,000 naira on just transportation to pick up a monthly paycheck of 8,000 naira.
The third cleaner would have 200 naira left of her salaries to take home after spending 300 naira on transportation per day. A number of times, she finds someplace under the stairs or a kitchenette to sleep because she did not have enough money to eat and go back home after work. She wakes up the next morning to begin the routine again of cleaning up the mess Brownites make in the bathroom, toilets and kitchenettes.
“How do you cope, and why do you still work here?”
The answer to these questions were obvious, but we needed to ask anyway.
ABH cleaners survive by washing clothes, 20 naira per piece. They charge extra for towels, curtains, and bedsheets. Many Brownites have also made it a habit to gift cleaners some money. One cleaner attested that some days earlier, she had nothing to go home with and was already wondering where she could pass the night. A Brownite then randomly gave her some money which was enough to get her home.
“It is because of Brownites. It is why we are still here. And there is no job out there, so we just have to manage.”
A Vox Pop we conducted recently showed Brownites’ expectations in term of remuneration for cleaners. However, considering how inconsiderately they use the bathrooms, toilets and kitchenettes; and how they litter the chess area and corridors like nursery school children, ABH cleaners are not only grossly underpaid but also over-worked. Our ears were full already, but there was a lot more to be unearthed.
Over the next week, ABH Press reached out to the Hall Executives, a cleaner, obtained information from other cleaners in UI halls and the University Health Services (Jaja Clinic). Of course, we also had a telephone interview with the contractor in charge of the ABH cleaners and gardeners. We will present our findings along with the rest of the story.