Toilet cleaners work under poor working conditions

Communal toilets in Duncan Village. Photo by Manqulo Nyakombi

Toilet cleaners in East London are complaining about bad working conditions. Working under the Expanded Public Works Programme, the cleaners, the majority of them women, say they do not get protective gear and sometimes have to buy cleaning materials themselves. Some work without an uniform.

Mdantsane, Eastern Cape, South Africa

Toilet cleaners in East London are complaining about bad working conditions. Working under the Expanded Public Works Programme, the cleaners, the majority of them women, say they do not get protective gear and sometimes have to buy cleaning materials themselves. Some work without an uniform.

Elitsha interviewed  a number of toilet cleaners from informal settlements in Duncan Village and Mdantsane.

In Mdantsane NU3, we met a woman who has been working as a toilet cleaner since 2013.

Sibongiseni, as we shall name her, told this reporter that she cleans at least ten toilets a day, a job made worse when a toilet is blocked.

Just one of the toilets she cleans is shared by up to five families.

Of these toilets, there’s one next to a shebeen and it is always dirty, with drunks caring little to clean up after themselves.

“We are earning R2,400 a month and it has been like that since 2013,” she said.

Sibongiseni said on her salary, she buys gloves and cleaning material which cost close to R250.

“I always make sure that I do not buy expensive cleaning material because it is going to dig deep in my pocket,” she said.

She works without a mask because she does not have money to buy one. According to She raised this matter with her supervisor and all she’s been receiving is empty promises.

“When I started here I didn’t have a uniform. I used to work with my own clothes. I received the uniform last year, I just hope that one day they are going to provide us with cleaning material,” she said.

We asked Sibongiseni if she belongs to any union and her answer was no. She said no one has ever told them about a union and would love to have one to assist them in fighting for their rights.

“The conditions we are working under are very bad and the money is very little. Can you believe for gloves only I had to spend R150 and they do not last long because I’m using them everyday,” she complained.

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Toilet cleaners in Duncan Village, Khayelitsha Informal Settlement also experience a lack of cleaning material and protective clothing.

These cleaners asked their names not to be used saying that they were once threatened to be fired after talking to media.

According to them, they been working as cleaners for the past three years, but part time. One of the cleaners said since they started working they have never had a uniform. The cleaner said he cleans 10 toilets which are shared by more than 1,000 people.

These are, as you’d expect, often blocked and vandalised. On his contract, this cleaner said he is supposed to work 14 days a month, but because toilets are always dirty, he undertakes to clean them almost every day.

“These toilets have no locks that means anyone can use them. At first we tried to organise locks but we realised that few people have keys then the rest of the people don’t and they are vandalising the doors in order to get in,” he said.

When we visited Khayelitsha Informal Settlement we found this cleaner trying to unblock some of the toilets using a stick.

He had reported the blocked toilet to his supervisor but was still waiting for the municipality to unblock it.

“This is not a job one can be proud of but we are doing it because we do not have a choice. We are getting sick. One of the cleaners recently had TB; he spent months in hospital but we are still working without gloves and masks,” he said.

On his salary this cleaner said he and his partner, who also cleans toilets, have to take to out R400 to buy cleaning materials.

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“We buy two 5 litre chemicals, soaps and madubula (disinfectant) to fight the bad smell. We then buy gloves for ourselves,” he said. Ten litres of chemicals do not last the whole month and sometimes they just use water.“We do not buy masks because they are very expensive we rather work while our nose and mouths are open,” he added.

He said they tried to raise their concerns at meetings they had with the Buffalo City Metro Municipality but with no luck.

“At least if we had a union things were going to be better,” he said.

Communal toilets in C-section in Duncan Village. Picture by Anele Mbi.

Cleaners in Holomisa Informal Settlement also in Duncan Village raise similar issues, also working under no union.

One of the cleaners who identified herself as Marhadebe said they do still fight for their rights and when they have issues they speak with their ward councillor, Ntombizandile Mhlola who has taken their grievances to the municipality.

Marhadebe said the problem is that the BCMM does not respond to them which makes Mhlola’s job very difficult.

Mqhayi said absorbing these workers is something that the municipal workers’ union, SAMWU, is advancing.

“As you know this is a national programme and it is under Public Works. What we are doing we are trying to get these workers to be hired directly by the municipality so that we can fight for their rights,” he said.

When Elitsha spoke to the SAMWU Community Service Chairperson, Lindile Mqhayi, he claimed that it is organising the toilet cleaners even though none of the workers that we spoke to said they belong to the union nor know of any toilet cleaner who belongs to a union.

Buffalo City Metro Municipality on the other hand did not respond to questions sent to them two weeks ago.

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