It’s dirty work – but someone has to do it

Refuse collectors toil under difficult conditions to keep city clean

It is daybreak at 5.40am on a Wednesday. There are about 20 refuse workers at the canteen of the waste management depot in Port Elizabeth’s Harrower Road.

This is their office – a small, stuffy room with a long wooden table in the centre and a row of lockers against the wall. This is where these men change into and out of their overalls before and after work.

Around the corner are showers and dirty, leaking toilets – some behind doors with no handles.

“We are expected to eat in this environment. We can’t. The food doesn’t go down,” Thobile Boyana says.

“We don’t have time to eat because the work we are doing is dirty, the trucks are filthy and we don’t have places where we can stop to wash our hands and eat.”

Down the narrow passage – damp from a leaking sewerage pipe – is a smaller waiting room, with two shabby couches.

This is where some workers kill time before hitting the road to begin the gruelling task of garbage collection in Nelson Mandela Bay.

At the start of the shift at 6am, four men in blue overalls, safety shoes and gloves jump onto the filthy refuse truck and set off towards Gelvandale.

The mood is jovial, although the conversation is about the conditions the refuse workers have to endure.

The discussion then shifts to the one-hour bonus issue – a bonus they had received since 2013 for working through their breaks but which was stopped by the council in September.

The bonus was paid out again from November, according to the workers, but abruptly stopped in February.

It is unfair, these workers complain, because they simply do not have time, nor do they have the appetite, to eat under these filthy conditions.

The truck driver, Nkosikhona Mazula, who has been working for the municipality for 19 years, says he is disappointed in mayor Athol Trollip, who visited his house in Kwazakhele while campaigning.

“I told him about our problems as refuse workers, about this one-hour lunch bonus issue and he said we must vote for him and he will fix it.”

The 47-year-old Mazula feels Trollip has gone back on his word.

The first stop is the Gelvan Park frail care centre, where rubbish bins, filled mostly with adult nappies, are ready for collection.

“We don’t have masks; they are not given to us. Sometimes these black bags break and we have to pick up the faeces with our hands and brush it off in the grass,” another one of the four employees, Charl Solomons, says.

The next stop is the Santa TB Hospital in Bethelsdorp. “You can see, we are at a TB hospital and we don’t have masks,” Mazula says.

They know the risks of their jobs, but they push ahead nonetheless.

“The municipality thinks we are lying when we say we collect rubbish from hospitals. Some people have died of TB with this job,” Mazula says.

As the workers make their way to the Arlington waste site to dump the day’s first load, we join another group of refuse collectors in West End.

This truck, too, has four workers – two assembling the bins, the others loading the rubbish onto the truck.

After a few streets, they switch roles. The cycle continues for hours.

We join a third group of refuse collectors, this time in Walmer. Here, the rubbish is piled in black bags.

But this does not necessarily make it any easier. Some bags are so heavy they break, while others have been torn open by roaming dogs.

Samson Ndlela complains that people stuff garden waste into the bags.

“It is not allowed, but our supervisors have issues with us if we leave the lawn bags behind, so we take them anyway,” he says, shrugging.

It is midday and the workers have been at it for hours without passing a single public toilet.

“We use trees and bushes to urinate because there are no municipal facilities for us in these areas,” he says.

At about 1.30pm, the truck makes its way to the Arlington tip where dozens of people are waiting to pick through the rubbish.

While two of the workers make their way back to the depot to clock out at 2pm, the other two jump onto another truck to help finish the work on another route, with the hope of raking in some overtime.

It has been a long day – for some it began as early as 4am – and all the workers want is to scrub the dirt of the day off and finally eat something.

  • The refuse workers quoted did not use their real names as they fear reprisal from the municipality.

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